Wimbledon, the quaint village just a short Tube ride from the bustling city of London, is about to be wakened from its annual 50-week slumber. Only this year, the little burb got to sleep in for one more week.
In a decades-overdue decision, The Championships moved the start date of the fortnight back one week, creating three weeks between the trophy-raising at the French Open and the first serve at Wimbledon. No longer will players have to hurry up and get adjusted from the high-bouncing red clay of Roland Garros to the skidding lawns of the All England Club for the most storied event in the game.
The only player who might not be pleased that the move came this year is Serena Williams. Huh? you say. Why would the five-time champ and world No. 1 care whether Wimbledon starts three weeks or, for that matter, three days after the French?
The answer is, because a lot of tennis gets played even when no one’s playing. A riddle? Nah, just my way of saying that thinking about matches can be as stressful as playing them, and an additional week to ruminate over the possibilities isn’t always helpful.
Serena enters Wimbledon with several historic possibilities on the line … and on her mind. A sixth title would bring her within one of tying Steffi Graf’s 22 majors and within three of Margaret Smith Court’s record 24. What’s more, a Wimbledon win would give Serena a non-calendar year Grand Slam (i.e. four consecutive majors).
This is rare air that most players can only dream about, but for Serena, she has already attained the latter in 2002-2003 and should have a few more years, even at age 33, to match or pass Graf and Court in the all-time major count.
But the even greater prize at stake for Williams is the potential for a calendar-year Grand Slam, which only five players in history have accomplished: Don Budge in 1938, Maureen Connolly in 1953, Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969, Court in 1970 and Graf in 1988. With victories in Melbourne and Paris this year and having won the year’s remaining two majors a combined 11 times, Serena surely sees a wide-open door for membership in that elite group. That’s the good news. But pondering the prospect, hearing about it endlessly in the media, and feeling the stares everywhere she goes only adds more degrees to the difficulty.
She said as much just hours after winning the French Open. When asked about the men’s final the next day between Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic, who was on his own Grand Slam quest at the time, Serena replied, “I’m kind of hoping Djokovic will win so I’m not the only one with this pressure on me. So, like, we’re in this together.”
Djokovic didn’t hold up his end of the bargain, and now Serena is running alone. She, like anyone who takes pride in his or her craft, cares deeply about her performance and results. Sometimes, too deeply. There is a razor-sharp edge in wanting to win and wanting to win too much where you get in your own way. Serena occasionally crosses that line, which may partially explain some of her early-round Grand Slam losses last year.
Hall of Famer Billie Jean King likes to say, “Pressure is a privilege.” It’s a perspective-altering adage — and I think true — that bearing the weight of high expectations expands life beyond the mundane. But even a brief capitulation to the pressure of the moment causes the muscles to tighten, the mind to race, the basic to become difficult, and all to go helplessly awry.
Serena should win the Grand Slam this year. But first she must win Wimbledon. Her biggest threat will be world No. 2 Czech Petra Kvitova, a lefty and the defending and two-time champion who has the shot-making ability of her own to take Serena out of her game. But perhaps an equal danger for Serena is getting past a player in the early rounds whom she thinks she should beat rather than one she perceives to be her near equal in the final. Deep breaths, Serena, and remember, “Pressure is a privilege.”
As for the men, the top three — defending champ Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray — are all in good form and, along with Rafael Nadal, own every Wimbledon crown over the past 12 years. This year will likely not break that trend.
And yet none of them will walk through the wrought-iron gates of the All England Club with as much to gain as Serena … and with certainly not as much on their minds.
Minnesota’s David Wheaton beat Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi on his way to the semifinals of Wimbledon in 1991 before falling to Boris Becker. Wheaton’s new book, “My Boy, Ben,” is the story of a yellow Lab that he had back in his pro tennis days. Find out more at davidwheaton.com.