The Entirely Serena Promotions Network, aka ESPN, was in full swing last week, boosting the tennis player they love and discrediting the old woman from Australia who continues to be a thorn in their side.
The TV crew, headed by Chris Evert, dearly want Serena Williams to catch and pass 77-year-old Margaret Court in the number of Grand Slam singles titles. But the pesky preacher from Down Under just won’t go away.
Williams’ 6-2, 6-2 loss to Simona Halep in Saturday’s Wimbledon final kept her stuck on 23 major championships, one short of Court’s record 24. Williams hasn’t won a major since the Australian Open 2½ years ago. She is 37 now and eventually might win a 24th and 25th major, but the odds get worse with each Grand Slam tournament in which she fails to grab the big prize.
Williams’ inability to catch Court hasn’t prevented ESPN from proclaiming her as the unequivocal greatest player of all time. They’ve been doing it for years, even before Williams had passed Helen Wills’ 19 majors and Steffi Graf’s 22. Maybe they back Williams out of fear of her estimable wrath. Or they do it to boost ratings.
Regardless, how is it possible that Williams is the GOAT, considering that:
• She trails Court in Grand Slam singles titles, 24-23.
• She trails Court in Grand Slam doubles titles, 40-16.
• She trails Court in career singles titles, 192-72.
• She trails Graf in number of weeks ranked No. 1, 377-319.
• She has failed to achieve the hardest feat in tennis, the calendar year Grand Slam. Court and Graf have done it.
Undeterred, ESPN has adopted a strategy of proclaiming Williams’ greatness at every turn while spreading untruths about Court.
Court’s detractors love to point out that 11 of her 24 major titles were won in her home country, Australia. In the 1960s, when eight of Court’s Australian titles were won, the tournament was played relatively close to Christmas, and the long flight was enough to persuade some American and European players to stay home.
Here is what Evert said on ESPN last year:
“She won 11 Australian Opens when nobody was going down there, the top women, because it was during Christmas. Let’s just get that out there.”
Here is the truth. From 1960-1973, these were among the women who played in the Australian Championships during Court’s run of titles: Billie Jean King, Maria Bueno, Nancy Richey, Evonne Goolagong, Virginia Wade, Lesley Turner, Darlene Hard, Ann Haydon-Jones, Rosie Casals and Francoise Durr. All of those women now are in the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
ESPN tennis analyst Brad Gilbert repeated the smear last weekend after Williams’ defeat.
“I still have Williams as the all-time Slam winner,” he said, “because Margaret Court won 11 Australian Opens and a bunch of them were 48 (player) draws and they were basically just Australian tournaments.”
That, essentially, is the new mantra that ESPN’s crew broke out last weekend: Serena doesn’t have to catch Court to be the all-time Grand Slams champion.
You could replay ESPN’s broadcasts of the Grand Slam tournaments over the past five years and not find a single positive word spoken about Court, other than possibly this one by Chris Fowler, who responded to Evert’s take-down of Court last year: “The fields (in Australia) weren’t quite as strong, but you never want to take away from a champion’s achievements.”
It’s not as if Williams is facing a Murderer’s Row every time she plays in a major. At this month’s Wimbledon, she played a qualifier in the first two rounds, followed by players ranked No. 17, No. 31, No. 55 and No. 54 before finally facing a top-10 player in seventh-seeded Halep.
What does the ESPN tennis crew have against Court? You won’t hear the broadcasters say so on the telecasts, but their grudge all-but certainly is the same one held by some players in women’s tennis. They detest Court, a Pentecostal pastor based in Perth, for speaking out against gay marriage and allegedly suggesting homosexuality is the work of the devil. King and Martina Navratilova, both gay, have led the charge against Court, advocating that her name be removed from Margaret Court Arena, which is the second-largest stadium at the Australian Open.
King, who had a 10-22 career record against Court, has said she would refuse to play in Margaret Court Arena if she still was playing.
A British newspaper, The Telegraph, wrote last year, “Court denies she is homophobic but says she is a deeply religious person and follows the Scriptures.”
And so the campaign to coronate Williams continues unabated, even to absurd proportions. While hardly anyone would deny that Williams has the best serve ever in women’s tennis, ESPN’s Pam Shriver seemingly lost her mind when she blurted, “Serena has one of the top five serves in tennis history, men or women.”
Praise has been heaped on Williams over the past two years for playing while she was pregnant and then returning to tennis after the birth of her first child. What you won’t hear on ESPN is that Court had three children during her career and lost a Wimbledon final when she was pregnant.
While Williams, reportedly worth upwards of $100 million, has the luxury of flying in a private jet from her mansion in south Florida to the majors and concentrating almost solely on the Grand Slams, Court played to make a living as she and her husband flew on commercial aircraft from tournament to tournament with their children in tow.
Only Williams and maybe her inner circle know why she continues to play at age 37. One suspects she assesses the level of competition in women’s tennis today and determines that major titles are there for the taking. This is an era in women’s tennis devoid of great players, certainly weaker than what Graf faced in her day with the likes of Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, Navratilova, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, Gabriela Sabatini and newly inducted Hall of Famer Mary Pierce.
A bigger question is why the only measure of greatness in tennis players today is the number of Grand Slam singles titles they win. In Court’s day, nearly all the top players played doubles, and it meant something. Now, Court’s 40 Grand Slam doubles titles account for nothing. Neither do her 192 career singles titles.
Wouldn’t it be enough to say Williams is one of the greatest players of all time, along with Court, Graf and Navratilova? Or she possibly is the greatest player of all time? The answer, as far as the ESPN crew is concerned, is no.
(Ron Cobb has written about tennis since 1972 and was the Post-Dispatch tennis writer in the 1980s and 1990s. He has been inducted into the USTA Missouri Valley Tennis Hall of Fame and the St. Louis Tennis Hall of Fame.)