Women’s Majors Review 2018: Will Serena Ever Catch Margaret Court?

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In the second part of his review of the 2018 Majors, Martin Keady looks at the women’s game and considers whether Serena Williams will ever catch, let alone overtake, Margaret Court as the winningest female tennis player ever.

If men’s tennis seems stuck in something of a holding pattern – with the Big Three of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic winning all four Majors in 2018, just as they did a decade earlier in 2008 – women’s tennis is thrillingly uncertain. Serena Williams still dominates, if only by sheer force of presence, but a succession of other women have emerged as Major winners. Can any of them replace Serena as the undisputed World No.1? And can Serena herself win at least one more Major to draw level with Margaret Court on 24 Slam victories, before age and time finally take their toll?

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: WON BY CAROLINE WOZNIAKI
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Caroline Wozniaki became one of the most popular first-time winners of a Major ever when she finally claimed her maiden Slam in Melbourne this year. The combination of her own dogged persistence on court and the widespread perception that she had been publicly humiliated when Rory McIlroy broke off their engagement several years earlier (after the wedding invitations had already been sent out) combined to make her a firm favourite in the eyes of many tennis fans. To claim that debut Major, however, she had to beat Simona Halep, another woman chasing her first Slam victory after several losses in finals.

What ensued was one of the finest women’s finals in years, but also one of the most physically punishing. That was not simply because of the searing Australian heat, but because both women are the epitome of the “make your opponent play one more point” approach to tennis, which made for some fabulous but gruelling rallies. In the end, Wozniaki triumphed 6-4 in the third set to finally claim the Major that had seemed destined to elude her. As for Halep, she was so drained afterwards that she was hospitalised for a short period. Fortunately for her, redemption awaited on the red dirt of Paris.

FRENCH OPEN: WON BY SIMONA HALEP

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The 2018 Australian Open Final was the third Major Final that Halep had lost, after losing two French Open Finals: first to Maria Sharapova in 2014, when she was a relative newcomer; and then again in 2017, when she was the firm favourite but was blasted off court by Jelena Ostapenko. After making it an unwanted hat-trick of Major Final losses in Melbourne, there was genuine fear that the little Romanian, who is perhaps the ultimate pocket battleship of a player, might never win the Major that would legitimise her No.1 ranking.

That fear intensified in the first set in Paris, when Sloane Stephens, who herself had won her first Major in New York nine months earlier, capitalised on Halep’s nerves and won it relatively comfortably, 6-3. When she broke Halep early in the second set, it seemed that a second Stephens Slam was a fait accompli. Halep, however, finally found her game. As if liberated by the idea that she had nothing left to lose, she began outrunning Stephens, whose own mobility is impressive, and fought back to take the second set 6-4. Emboldened, Halep ran away with the third set, winning it 6-1, to delight the huge number of her fellow countrymen and women who had gathered to watch her. Just like her compatriots Ilie Nastase and Virginia Ruzici in the 1970s, when Romania enjoyed a golden age of tennis, Halep made Roland Garros Romanian for at least one day.

WIMBLEDON: WON BY ANGELIQUE KERBER
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If the first two Majors of the year were breakthroughs for Wozniaki and Halep respectively, Wimbledon 2018 was something of a break-back, as Angelique Kerber finally rediscovered her irresistible form of 2016, which had taken her to World No.1 and two Major victories (in Melbourne and New York). Ever since that career high, however, she had slowly slid down the rankings and as younger, more naturally hard-hitting players like Ostapenko and Garbiñe Muguruza had emerged and won Majors, there was considerable doubt that she could ever win another Slam.

Kerber dispelled all those doubts on the gorgeous grass of Wimbledon. As every other seed seemed to fall by the wayside, she found herself in the second week and suddenly gained unstoppable momentum. In the quarterfinals, she comfortably defeated Russia’s Daria Kasatkina, a thrilling stylist who has every shot in the book except the most important one (the serve). Then, in the semi-finals she showed she had both the mobility and the poise to beat Ostapenko. However, the biggest challenge still lay ahead, in the redoubtable form of Serena Williams.

Williams, of course, was continuing her return to court after giving birth (traumatically, as it emerged during the year) at the end of 2017. As a magnificent seven-time Wimbledon champion, she was the clear favourite against Kerber, who she had defeated in the 2016 Wimbledon Final. However, it soon became obvious that even “Superwoman Serena”, as she so often appears, could not complete the comeback that her legion of fans had hoped for. Instead, Kerber won 6-3, 6-3 to become the first German woman to win Wimbledon since Steffi Graf in 1996.

US OPEN: WON BY NAOMI OSAKA
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A fortnight on, and the repercussions of the 2018 US Open Women’s Singles Final continue to be felt, as debate still rages, within tennis and without, as to who exactly was to blame for the spectacular meltdown that Serena Williams suffered in the second set. (Williams herself? Umpire Carlos Ramos? Both?) As Serena herself seemed to realise afterwards, it was easy in all the ensuing rancour and commotion to forget the actual winner, Naomi Osaka.

Osaka had already made one breakthrough of sorts earlier in 2018, when she won at Indian Wells, but this was a second and far more spectacular breakthrough, as she became the first Japanese of either gender to win a Major. In the process, she became the third woman to become a first-time Major winner in 2018, after Wozniaki and Halep, and at only 20 she was by far the youngest of that trio. She seems destined to win further Majors and one can only hope that if and when she wins a second Slam she gets to celebrate it in a way that she was denied in New York.

SO WHERE NOW, IN 2019 AND BEYOND?
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Neither Wozniaki nor Halep built on their maiden Major victory – indeed, both women performed fairly poorly in the year’s other Slams – but then again neither did many of the first-time Majors in recent years, including Ostapenko. As a result, the women’s game remains in a state of flux (especially in comparison with the stasis at the top of the men’s game) and as yet no woman has demonstrated conclusively that she will finally succeed Serena Williams and become the undisputed World No.1, winning several Majors in the process. Perhaps eventually it will be Osaka, or even Muguruza, if she can rediscover her Major-winning form of 2016 and 2017.

As for Serena herself, she is not so much competing against her contemporary rivals as she is competing against her only serious rival for the title of Greatest Female Player Ever, Margaret Court. Nearly half a century on from her last Major victory (the 1973 US Open), Court still holds the record for most Major wins by a woman, at 24. When Serena won the 2016 Australian Open to reach 23 Major wins, it appeared inevitable that she would soon catch and then overtake Court. However, what none of us (other than Serena herself, her husband and other close family members) knew at the time was that she was pregnant. As a result, she missed the remaining Majors in 2017 and then struggled to reassert her dominance in 2018, losing the last two Major Finals of the year. It is now at least questionable whether she will ever match, let alone overtake, Court.

Of course, that battle between Williams and Court is not just being fought on court but off it, as one senses that the whole of tennis wants Serena to break the all-time record for Major victories by a woman. That is because it would surely be preferable for the sport if its all-time winningest woman player was a young black woman who had fought her way up from the ghetto rather than a bigoted old white woman whose controversial “Christian” views have done so much to destroy the reputation she built up while playing. However, it increasingly appears that that might be a battle that even the extraordinary Serena cannot win.

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