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Serena Williams vs Margaret Court: Much ado about Number 24*

Within hours of Serena Williams’s semifinal loss to Naomi Osaka at the recently concluded Australian Open, Matt Davies of the Daily Mail published an article with the elongated headline: “Serena Williams has now fallen short in 10 straight Grand Slams with her dream of equalling Margaret Court’s record of 24 titles still at bay: Where has it gone wrong for the all-time great and can she ever match the record with a new generation shining?” Davies joins an ever-expanding list of pundits benchmarking Williams against Court’s 24 Grand Slam singles titles. To put it succinctly, the number 24 has become an adjective used to describe Williams.

When Williams defeated her sister Venus Williams at the 2017 Australian Open to win her 23rd Grand Slam title, she overtook Steffi Graf as the player with the most number of Grand Slam singles titles in the Open Era. The next year, when she resumed playing tennis after having a baby, tennis pundits airbrushed Graf from the history books and picked up Court’s long-forgotten and long-dismissed record from the dustbin of tennis history, using it as the golden standard to judge Williams’s legacy. 

In 2018, Raz Mirza of Sky penned an article titled: “Will Serena Williams win a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title at Wimbledon?” In 2019, Bryan Armen Graham wrote in The Guardian: “Serena Williams won’t break Margaret Court’s record.” In 2020, Shane Ryan wrote a piece in Golf Digest, titled: “Serena Williams is never going to break Margaret Court’s grand slam record, and it’s depressing.” Court herself, has even weighed in on the topic saying it wouldn’t be easy for Williams to beat her Grand Slam records.

In the build-up to the 2020 US Open, Christopher Clarey of the New York Times wrote, “After the coronavirus paused the tours, Williams is gearing up for the US Open, her next opportunity to tie Margaret Court’s Grand Slam singles title record.” 

In 2021, some commentators suggest that Williams retire because she has failed to equal Court’s so-called record.

Without a doubt, Court is one of the best tennis players ever. In the 1960s and 1970s, she was the most dominant player in the world. She became one of five players to have won a calendar Grand Slam, when she won the four majors in 1970. Court is one of three women to have won a career box set (winning all possible grand slam singles, doubles, and mixed titles) over her entire career. With all due respect to Court’s accomplishments, however, a colossal asterisk should be written beside her 24 Grand Slam Singles title. The number 24 is a “fake number”, which should not and should never be used as the standard to analyse Williams.

To appreciate this, one needs to understand Open-era tennis and the nature of the Australian Open in the 1960s when Court reigned supreme.

The pre-Open-era and Open-era periods define tennis history. When Grand Slam tennis began in 1877, it was played by amateurs who earned their living outside tennis. As the years rolled by, some players needed financial security, so they started playing professionally. Because they were paid, tennis authorities prevented them from competing in the Grand Slam tournaments. The competition was thus limited because some of the best players were excluded. This all changed in 1968 when the Open Era of professional tennis began and the sport became more international, competitive and lucrative.

Court won 13 of her 24 Grand Slam titles (54%) during the pre-Open-Era period. Since mostly amateurs played and it was not as competitive, accomplishments achieved during the Open Era are given more prominence. For instance, even though Helen Wills Moody won a total of 19 Grand Slam singles titles between 1923 and 1938, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova’s 18 Grand Slam hauls achieved between 1974 and 1990 were considered the golden standard from which to benchmark women’s tennis. When Graf burst onto the scene with 22 Grand Slams to her name, her feat became the new standard to aspire to among women players. But when Williams eclipsed Graf’s record by winning 23, the goalposts were changed.

The second asterisk against Court’s feat is that it is tilted heavily towards the Australian Open of the 1960s and 1970s when the field was not as competitive. She won 11 of her Grand Slam singles titles (45.8%) at the Australian Open. During this period, the Australian Open was the least prestigious of the Grand Slam titles. Many players skipped going to the competition because of the high cost of travelling the distance. As writer Marlisa Lawrence Corbett eloquently put it in describing that era, the “Australian Open was to Grand Slams what Andy Murray is to the ATP’s Big Four: the weakest link”.

It is easy for pundits to pontificate about Court being the greatest of all time or uphold her previously irrelevant record as the ultimate tennis standard; however, as much as they are entitled to their own opinion, they are certainly not entitled to their own facts. 

So, let us examine the facts.

Between 1960 and 1966, Court won six consecutive Australian Open titles. She then added five championships between 1969 and 1973. What was the state of the competition at the Australian Open? What was the quality of her opponents? How did the tournament compare to the other Grand Slams? What were the contestants’ nationalities?

In 1960, the two finalists who featured in the men’s final were Australians, and the finalists for the women’s final were also Australians. The four contestants in the men’s double finals were Australians, two of the four women’s double finalists were Australians, and three of the four finalists in the mixed doubles final were Australians. In 1961 and 1962, all the people who competed in the men, women’s, mens’ doubles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles finals were Australians.

Turning specifically to the women’s competition at the Australian Open, the table below shows the split between Australian and non- Australian players during the years that Court prevailed:

From 1960 to 1973, Court prevailed in a tournament where, on average, 85% of the contestants were Australian. In 1961, all of the 44 contestants in the draw were Australians. During this era, the Australia Open was more or less a local tournament with the veneer of a Grand Slam. In comparison, the other Grand Slam tournaments were not so biased towards local players.

Between 1960 and 1966, an average of 30% of the players who competed in the Wimbledon Championships were British. The Wimbledon Championship was more international in scope and more competitive. Furthermore, a comparative analysis of the number of players in the women’s draw of the French Open, Wimbledon and Australian Open reveals that the Australian Open was less competitive. The number of contestants at the Australian Open between 1960 and 1966 was on average 55 fewer than those who competed at Wimbledon during the same period.

In the 1960s, there were 11 different Grand Slam winners. The list includes Court, Maria Bueno, Billie Jean King, Darlene Hard, Ann Haydon-Jones, Lesley Turner Bowrey, Nancy Richey, Angela Mortimer, Franoise Durr, Karen Hantze Susman and Virginia Wade. As these were the dominant players of the 1960s, it would be useful to see if these players competed in the Australian Open in the years when Court captured her 11 Australian Open titles.

My research shows that Court’s international rivals were not present when she conquered Australia 11 times. King, the 12-time Grand Slam winner and Court’s fiercest rival, only competed in two Australian Opens in which Court won the tournament. Their careers overlapped between 1959 and 1975. In the 17 years that they competed, Court played 4.7 times as many Australian Opens as King.

The above shows that any comparison between Williams and Court concerning the latter’s 24 Grand Slam titles cannot withstand analysis. To put the non-participation of Court’s rival during her peak into perspective, it is like Williams competing in the US Open or Wimbledon between 2002 and 2019 without Venus Williams, Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Justine Henin, Maria Sharapova, Garbine Muguruza, Jennifer Capriati, Victoria Azarenka, Petra Kvitova, Angelique Kerber or Osaka ever playing.

Umpire’s verdict

So, what can one make of the never-ending comparisons between Williams and Court? Deliberately or not, they appear to be an attempt to deny Williams of her stature. Throughout her career, commentators continue to subject her to a different kind of standard relative to other greats. Very often, when pundits bring in an aspect of William’s greatness in a sentence, the word “but” is used to connect to a contrasting clause that diminishes her achievements. We read, “Serena might have 23 Grand Slam titles, but if she played the men’s circuit she’d be like 700 in the world”; Williams might have 23 Grand Slam titles, but “I’ll bet you £1-billion that Roger Federer would beat Serena Williams a hundred times out of a 100”; Serena might have 23 Grand Slam titles, but ”Will Serena Williams ever match Margaret Court’s record of 24 Slams?”

It is time for pundits to disregard Court’s 24 titles just as they did during the Graf, Evert and Navratilova era. Should the pundits continue obsessing over number 24, they should realise that whether Williams exceeds, equals, or does not equal the score, her place in history is assured. Like  her coach Patrick Mouratoglou says, Williams is “not as obsessed with the record” and has done it all. She has nothing else to prove — she is the #GOAT. The facts speak for themselves. 

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