Finally, Serena Williams is as good as Steffi Graf.
No one in the open era has won more slams than the American and the German but, as everyone knows, Australia’s Margaret Court – now a minister of religion and sitting in the royal box – won 24 majors straddling the old and new regimes, so there is another mountain in the mist for Williams still to conquer.
Graf was not present – but her aura was, until Williams rose at the net at 3.36pm with all the artful menace she can bring to a tennis court and tapped away the winning volley. The patrons rose as one. Her coach and muse, Patrick Mouratoglou, cheering loudest – well, maybe joined equally in the chorus by the winner’s ever-present mother, Oracene.
Her father, Richard, who masterminded the rise of Serena and her older sister, Venus, was not present either. Sometimes there is only so much room in anyone’s life for love and adulation. Serena made a point, however, of waving a hello to her father in an American TV interview later.
These, then, were the bare bones of her wondrous feat on a warm afternoon in a final of consistently high quality over an hour and 21 minutes.
More numbers: these, no doubt, meat and drink for those who resent equal pay for women in tennis but anyone present will testify to the entertainment and sporting value of the contest. Kerber was a worthy adversary. She had beaten Williams in the Australian final, after all.
Since winning this title a year ago, Williams lost against Roberta Vinci in the US Open semi-finals, Kerber in Melbourne and Garbiñe Muguruza in Paris. Was she finished as a champion? The numbers were not looking good – even though she was this weekend celebrating her 300th week as No1 in the world.
While it is too easy to drown in a sea of statistics, they tell no lies. They may not describe grace or power. They cannot summon up majesty, despair or joy. They will not always even give a rounded picture of victory or defeat but they are not capable of calumny.
Those that tell the tale of Williams’s longevity most clearly are the ones that describe the wholly different careers she and Graf have had.
The German won most of her big titles when young; Williams, who will be 35 on 26 September, has an astonishing record since she turned 30.
Her career was in a temporarily perilous state when she went out in the first round of the French Open in 2012. It was in Paris, at Mouratoglou’s academy, that she was to find, if not full‑blown redemption, at least inspiration to get back on track.
Before they began their partnership that year, Williams had won 41 titles, 13 of them majors in 47 attempts, a perfectly respectable dividend of 27.7%. Against top-10 players, the ultimate test, she was batting .653, as the Americans say: 111 wins to 59.
Overall, her win-loss record in that first stage of her already garlanded career was 523-107, a winning percentage of 83.
The next chapter was even better. Under Mouratoglou’s guidance, she has a win-loss record of 245-20, or 92.4%. She has won a further 29 titles in four years, including eight majors from 16 attempts. Against her rivals and near peers in the top 10, she has been imperious: 56-7 win-loss, or 88.9%.
None of this is to in any way diminish the achievements of Graf, whose greatness stands alone, but comparisons are inevitable in sport. And then there were the words to go with the numbers.
Beforehand, Williams was adamant. She was not thinking of 22 or any other number. Once she had got the job done, she told ESPN courtside: “Gosh it’s 22. That’s crazy, really crazy!” In her press conference, she conceded: “I’ve definitely had some sleepless nights, if I’m honest, getting so close.”
Chris Evert, who won 18 grand slam singles titles, struggled for balance. “I’ve always said Serena Williams is the greatest player we’ve ever seen,” she said, “with the greatest respect to Martina, Steffi … ”
Homage between players of similar excellence is always characterised by such fence-sitting. It’s as if they may be ejected from their own club for disloyalty to any of the others. Mortals are not constricted by such niceties.
Serena Williams, in numbers and deed, in the sheer power of her narrative and the exhilarating manner of her tennis, will be regarded – if not today, certainly soon enough – as the Muhammad Ali of her calling.
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