Why Serena does not need a 23rd title to become the greatest of all-time

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Why Serena does not need a 23rd title to become the greatest of all-time

Hers is not a tale of confetti and champagne; hers is the tale of cynicism and caveats. Hers is not a tale of hero-worship and raucous cheers, but of hypocrisy and racist taunts. Hers is not just a tale of slams and demi-god greatness; rather one of slums and ducking gunfire.

Serena Williams may have equaled the all-time record of 22 titles hitherto solely held by Steffi in Open era, but she is “not yet the greatest”. Columns have urged her to “keep up the fighting spirit”, “not to miss out on the glory that beckons”, “all-time greatest is just a few slams away”. Bullshit. She does not owe us anything anymore. She can ride into the sunset right now and she IS the greatest tennis player of all-time. And arguably the greatest female athlete ever.

Let's not forget this. This is not a contest between the dreamy German precision of Steffi against the unabashed American aggression of Serena. This is not a point-for-point comparison of the stats. Steffi does have a marginally higher percentage of wins, she won these 22 in a shorter span, she has more WTA titles than Serena.

But Steffi lacked on one count – the one that matters. After all, the pantheon of greatness in sport is reserved only for those who faced a younger enemy of equal calibre, endured the humiliation of defeat, rose up from the ashes, and took back their rightful place on the throne. It is the sporting equivalent of Joseph Campbell's myth of a hero. Steffi did not have to face the quality of opponents that Serena had – Hingis, Justine Henin, Clijsters, Davenport, Sharapova. Steffi had it all easy, although it is no fault of hers. There was a 33-year old Martina Navratilova, a one-year wonder in Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, and one Gabriela Sabatini ,who won one Grand Slam. She failed the one test that she faced – Monica Seles. Steffi has won exactly half her Grand Slams before the young Seles came along. Seles won all the three except Wimbledon in '91 and '92 and her record in Grand Slam finals was 3-1 against Steffi. If that stabbing had not happened, Steffi would probably have been a 36-font sized footnote in Seles' legacy.

But this is not even about that.

Greatness in sport, in fact, is a nebulous and subtle entity. It is not a straight tabulation of the records and numbers, checking the percentages and crossing the boxes. Serena's tale is as much about what she has accomplished off-field as it is about her on-court exploits. And that is where her life parallels that of “the Greatest”. When Muhammad Ali burst onto the scene as a springy, trash-talking kid, he was “absolutely insufferable”. The good Negro was expected to know his place, behave honorably in victory and in defeat, and defer to his superiors. Ali was anything but those. He cared two hoots about them, and it was not until late that he came to be recognized for his greatness – albeit grudgingly. If records and numbers made you the greatest, Lennox Lewis would be the greatest boxer who lived. He had the better stats on every count. And half a century later, Serena had to undergo the trials and tribulations all over – all because she was a woman, a black woman, in a sport of dainty misses and sultry sirens.

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Ali had to face down decades of racist roadblocks built into the system. And Serena had to repeat them all over with the double whammy of being a woman.

The sports field is a cruel and unforgiving arena and Serena was no dewy-eyed dame when she entered the world of tennis. Life in the alleys of Compton, ducking gunfire to get to practice was training enough for anyone. But Richard Williams knew the world that awaited his precious daughters – he would pay local kids to hurl racial slurs as they practised to strengthen their mettle. That did not prepare them enough though eventually. In 2001, a 19-year old Serena was booed all through her final at the Indian Wells, which she won. Better treatment was reserved for Venus and Richard. Richard remembers - “When Venus and I were walking down the stairs to our seats, people kept calling me ‘nigger.

“One guy said, ‘I wish it was ‘75; we’d skin you alive.’ That’s when I stopped and walked toward that way. Then I realised that [my] best bet was to handle the situation non-violently. I had trouble holding back tears”.

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She has been called a “gorilla”, suspected of her gender by fellow athletes. In 2014, the Russian Federation President Shamil Tarpischev described the World No1 and her sister Venus as the “Williams brothers”. The Russians have been at the receiving end of Serena's wrath on court forever after the much-touted Russian revolution never took off thanks to Serena's dominance, but it is inconceivable that their athletes as well resorted to snidely questioning her biceps and the naturalness of her strength.

The hypocrisy reached its apex when a particular ESPN reporter had to hide inside his huge ego-sized rabbit hole after pointing to other black athletes getting paid well in the market. It is a disgrace that despite her utter dominance of the sport that Serena earns less than half of what her glamorous and much-lesser rival Maria Sharapova has earned. It is a clear reflection of the sexist and racist undertones that plague the sport of women's tennis.

The Saartjie Baartman treatment she was put through is something our generation would hang our heads at when future generations look back. That the greatest athlete the world has seen had to fight for her basic dignity.

Serena has been no saint, let's admit it. She has always been a sore loser, she has shouted at ball boys and her ungodly wrath has been visited upon many an umpire. But, you do not grow up in Compton and turn out to be a nice little miss. You do not turn out to be a “good Negro”.

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Like Ali's struggles of an earlier era, Serena has had to face down the men who called her a man, the ones who hurled racist taunts as she prepared to serve, the smirking co-athletes who questioned her in post-match conferences, and countless spectators who did the same over their popcorn. She faced them down the way she faced her rivals on-court – unforgiving, relentless, and with a force of spirit that held nothing back. The world has finally, if only grudgingly, come to recognize her for what she is. But it may be sometime before she can take the claim of “the greatest of all-time” uncontested – not because she is not ready, but because we are not ready yet.

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