The Major Scale
What Serena Williams’ and Jordan Spieth’s Quests for Grand Slams Reveal about Tennis, Golf and Greatness
By Yang-Yi Goh
On the athletic career spectrum, Jordan Spieth and Serena Williams are near diametric opposites. He’s a barely-legal Texan barnstorming the golf world in just his third professional season. She’s an unparalleled tennis great continuing to defy the sands of time and dominate well into her thirddecade on tour. In June, at the age of 21, he became the youngest U.S. Open champion since Bobby Jones in 1923; last year, at 32, she became the oldest U.S. Open champion in the Open Era. He’s the new Tiger. She is the one and only Serena.
But for a brief moment this year, their paths aligned. In July, after Spieth coolly soared to his first two major titles—at the Masters and aforementioned U.S. Open—and Williams added to her already-overstuffed trophy room—with her 19th, 20th and 21st majors at the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon—it seemed like we were headed for a truly unprecedented occurrence in sports: simultaneous Grand Slam holders in tennis and golf.
A Grand Slam, for the uninitiated, is when a single athlete wins all four major championships in either tennis or golf in the same calendar year. No male golfer has ever completed the Grand Slam since the advent of the professional era, but with Spieth firing on all cylinders, it seemed conceivable that he might yet sweep the British Open in July and the PGA Championship in August to finish the greatest breakout season in golf history.
In women’s tennis, only Margaret Court in 1970 and Steffi Graf in 1988 had pulled off the feat, and with only September’s U.S. Open left, Serena looked unstoppable in her quest to join them and indisputably cement her place as the best female tennis player of all time. If both Spieth and Williams managed to complete their Slams, it would have been a once-in-a-lifetime eclipse, the kind of mind-boggling impossibility that your grandkids would tell their grandkids about.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
First, at the British Open in July, Spieth couldn’t hold up his end of the bargain. On the final day of the tournament, after a brilliant performance through horrible inclement conditions, he fell just a single stroke short of eventual winner Zach Johnson. A month later, he finished as the runner-up to Jason Day at the PGA Championship—another valiant effort, but not quite enough to get the job done.
Serena, meanwhile, did manage to shock the world at the U.S. Open—just not at all how she intended. After rolling through the first five rounds with typical ease, she found herself matched up with Roberta Vinci, the 43rd ranked player in the world, in the semi-finals. It was Vinci’s first time making it past the quarterfinals of a major tournament. In four previous matches against Serena, she had never won a set. It should have been a cakewalk. Instead, it was a miracle: Vinci outlasted Serena in a thrilling three-set match, and then immediately erupted in tears of joy, perhaps even more flabbergasted than her opponent at what had transpired.
Of course, it’s disappointing on some level that Serena and Spieth stumbled on their paths to history. But to think of their incredible runs as nothing but wasted opportunities is to miss the point entirely.
Think about this: the reason achieving a calendar year Grand Slam in tennis has been achieved before is that it’s a game of opponents, skill pitted against skill on an open court. Quite simply, the best player—the most talented, the most physically fit, and the most mentally tough—nearly always wins.
That’s why none of us believed it was possible for Serena to lose: even after all these years in the limelight, she still looms over the sport like an unconquerable giant. After all, she just won four (including last year’s U.S. Open) consecutive majors, and came within one fluke match of a fifth. That’s pretty damn remarkable, especially given her advancing age. And it’s even more remarkable that she’ll remain the favourite to finally pull off the feat in 2016.
With Spieth, pulling off a Grand Slam never seemed as certain a possibility as it did with Serena. In golf, you aren’t playing against anyone but the game itself. You’re playing against the depth of the bunkers, the quickness of the greens, the wind, the waning light. You’re playing against history.
It was fitting that Spieth’s British Open loss came at St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf, as if some greater force was trying to tell us in no uncertain terms that no one player is bigger than the sport. And, in any case, dominating back-to-back major championships and finishing in the top-three of the remainder is more than most golfers can hope to achieve in their entire careers, let alone a single season. Something tells us the kid is going to be just fine.
Simultaneous Grand Slams or not, we should still look back on 2015 as a high-mark for both sports—the year golf crowned a new saviour and tennis’s reigning queen vaulted her legend to even more extraordinary heights. We bore witness to feats of genuine greatness and exhilarating skill all year long. Shouldn’t we choose to celebrate that, instead of merely lamenting what could have been?