Saturday, September 19, 2015

The difficulty of winning the elusive Grand Slam

The Grand Slam in tennis is achieved when a player wins all four major tournaments - Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and US Open - all in the same year. This feat is so difficult that only five players in the entire history of the sport have achieved it: Don Budge in 1938, Maureen Connolly in 1953, Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969, Margaret Court in 1970 and Steffi Graf in 1988. Even other legends who are considered some of the best ever, such as Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Rafa Nadal, Martina Navratilova, and Chris Evert did not or have not achieved this elusive feat.

While Rod Laver was the only player to win a Grand Slam twice, Steffi Graf is so far the only one to do so at the time when the majors were played on different surfaces. Until the early 70s, Wimbledon, the Australian Open, and the US Open were all played on grass. Now, the Australian Open and the US Open are played on hard courts (Australia has Rebound Ace, US Open has DecoTurf) while Wimbledon is still played on grass and the French Open is played on red clay. Since 1988, no one has come close to achieving the elusive Grand Slam. That is, until this year.

photo from

For the first time in 27 years, Serena Williams won the first three Grand Slam events of the year and it looked like no one could stop her on her way to a fourth. At the US Open, she won the first five round to reach the semifinals, and by then the outcome seemed inevitable. Everyone was now waiting to see history be rewritten.

However, that semifinal between Serena and Roberta Vinci showed just why it is extraordinarily difficulty for even the best ever to achieve this feat. Throughout the year, you could sense Serena was feeling the pressure of doing what only 5 other people had before. Two matches away from the loftiest achievement in tennis, the pressure and her opponent finally got to her, with Vinci beating her 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.

The interesting thing is that Serena has twice won 4-in-a-row: in 2014-2015 and back in 2002-2003. She coined this the Serena Slam, which is essentially a non-calendar Grand Slam that was also achieved by Steffi Graf (1993-1994) and Martina Navratilova (1983-1984). This proves that skill and domination over the competition can help you win four in a row but the pressure of a calendar Grand Slam, which grows exponentially the closer you get to the finish line, is something that few people are able to overcome. Martina Navratilova also got to the semifinal of the Australian Open in 1984 after winning the first three (the Australian Open was played in December back then) before losing to Helena Sukova, a player she was expected to beat. Serena's semifinal loss to Vinci is uncannily similar. While many people have argued that four-in-a-row is just as difficult to win as a calendar Grand Slam, this US Open result proves them wrong.

When asked what she felt after winning the US Open in 1988, Steffi said she felt relief. I guess seeing other players who are often touted the best-ever wobble at the final hurdle just shows the unimaginable pressure placed on them when trying to complete the Grand Slam. That Steffi also won the Olympic Gold in Seoul shortly after her Grand Slam - making her the only player to have won the "Golden Slam" - really does make Steffi's 1988 achievement unlike any other.

Steffi Graf wins the Olympic Gold in 1988 (photo courtesy of

I don't see anyone close to taking over the reins from Serena Williams at the pinnacle of women's tennis at this point, and with 2016 being an Olympic year, she will have a shot of equaling Steffi Graf's 1988 Golden Slam achievement. She certainly has the talent to do it. But if 2015 is any indication, it will not be easy.

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