Serena, Martina, and the Calendar Grand Slam: elusive pursuits, zero diminishments

Serena Williams did not achieve the calendar Grand Slam in 2015. She was denied by Roberta Vinci on Friday at the U.S. Open, leaving her with a major-tournament record of “only” 26-1 this year.

Serena, of course, did win the “Serena Slam,” referring to her ability to win all four major tournaments in succession. She won last year’s U.S. Open and then the first three of this year. Over a decade ago, Serena carved out another path to the non-calendar slam: She won the last three major titles of 2002 and then won the 2003 Australian Open, also reeling off four in a row.

The calendar slam, however? That will have to wait.

One of the few players who can claim to exist on the same plane as Serena is Martina Navratilova. Like Serena, Navratilova won at least four majors in a row, but without bundling them into the same calendar year. In Navratilova’s heyday (the early-to-mid-1980s), the Australian Open was played in December, not January. It was therefore the last major of the year. (It was also not a 128-player event with all the top performers on tour, which is why the tournament counts for a lot more since it moved to the 128-player field in 1988.) The French Open was the first major of the year, and the U.S. Open was merely the third leg out of the four.

Therefore, when Navratilova lost in the fourth round of the 1983 French Open to Kathleen Horvath — in the kind of upset which legitimately rivals “Vinci d. Serena Williams” as one of the biggest of all time — Navratilova never could generate any “calendar Grand Slam” discussion. Yet, she won the final three majors of 1983, part of a year in which she went 84-1 in singles.

It was in 1984 that Navratilova made a bid for the calendar slam, winning the first three majors of the year. Like Serena, she made the semifinals in event number four. Like Serena, she easily won the first set of her semifinal (6-1) over Helena Sukova. Like Serena, she lost in a tight third set. Like Serena, she had to “settle” for winning a Grand Slam outside the parameters of a calendar year. Only three other women have ever pulled off the feat, and only two — Margaret Smith Court in 1970 and Steffi Graf in 1988 — have done so in the Open Era of professional tennis.

For a lot of people, the very idea of a “calendar Grand Slam” is a redundancy — you either win four in a row in any combination, or you don’t. For plenty of other tennis fans and followers, it’s not so much the redundancy which is irritating, but the excessive media focus on doing so within a calendar year.

Do these fans have a point? Without question. It’s certainly overdone to make such a big deal about the calendar year when jawdropping feats deserve to be the focus of the moment.

Serena Williams “failed” to win a calendar slam… but she won the last four majors. A focus on the notion of “failure” re-casts her U.S. Open and her career legacy (especially in relationship to Graf) in a diminished light, something which seems largely if not entirely inappropriate. The same can be said for Navratilova, who won six straight majors nearly a third of a century ago, but won’t be celebrated in the same way Graf is for what she did in 1988. “One did it, the other didn’t,” goes the refrain of those who would elevate Graf in an all-time conversation.

Celebrating Steffi for achieving the feat? That’s an entirely proper thing to do. “Downgrading” or “diminishing” Serena or Martina (or both) for “failing”? That’s harsh and, ultimately, not the right point of emphasis.

It’s hard for me to sit here and deny that too much is made of the calendar slam. Fans sick of the fixation on that one feat can certainly stand on solid ground.

Yet…

for all the legitimate complaints about too much attention being devoted to one achievement (thereby marginalizing larger bodies of accomplishment), there are two things to be said about the calendar Grand Slam, and why it’s not entirely a redundancy or some arbitrary application of the calendar human beings use to mark sections of time.

*

The first thing to appreciate about the calendar Grand Slam is that the pressure attached to it is real. Helena Sukova was a very fine player in her day, but the 1984 Australian Open was played on grass (before the switch to hardcourts in 1988), and Navratilova had no business losing matches on grass in those days, especially not after cruising through a first set. The pressure of the moment got to her, just as it obviously affected Serena as well. (Nerves cause slow and sluggish movements, and it was clear on a number of pivotal points in the third set that Serena was not moving her feet the way she needed to.)

The media focus might be overwhelming, but that’s actually part of the point: If you can withstand the media hype train and play through the very organic weight of the situation — even though the publicity is not of your making and is not something you ever personally welcomed — you have done something extra special in tennis. Serena, like Martina 31 years earlier, came very close.

The second point to make about the calendar Grand Slam — even while (again) acknowledging that winning four or five or six in a row should always be seen as much more important than the parameters of a calendar year — is that the year’s four majors are spaced out, and occur within a tennis season. The fact that the women have a reasonably long offseason (the men less so) makes the Australian Open not just the first major event of a calendar year, but the first major event of the tennis season.

Hypothetically, let’s say the Australian Open was still played in December, after an early-October WTA Finals event. The December staging of the Aussie Open would represent the start of the new season. Accordingly, it would deserve to be viewed as the first in the series of four major events during the tennis season. Any player who won a December Australian Open and then the following calendar year’s French/Wimbledon/U.S. championships would have gone 4-for-4 in that tennis season.

On one hand, this point exposes the limitations of the calendar.

However, since the Australian Open does happen to initiate the season within the month of January, there is something to be said for acknowledging that after (or before) taking a two-month offseason break, WTA competitors clashed in four major events, with the following season (like the preceding one) representing its own separate story. When seen in that light, the calendar slam makes a little more sense.

Perhaps — as a concluding statement and a point of compromise — we should call this achivement the “Seasonal Slam.”

What do you think?

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

Quantcast