Pitfalls in Slam lane

Pitfalls in Slam lane

Pitfalls in Slam lane

Winning four majors in a calendar year is proving to be too tough a climb even for the sport’s giants.

Impressive numbers have become the hallmark of these tennis times, and the French Open generated more math to remember. Rafael Nadal won his eighth French Open singles title, which is more than any man has won at the same Grand Slam tournament.

Serena Williams won her second French Open and her 16th major singles title. That created further separation with those who have had the misfortune to play in what is ever more Williams’s era, and it narrowed the gap with illustrious predecessors like Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, who each won 18 Grand Slam singles titles and are tied for fourth on the career list.

Nadal, Williams and Roger Federer are already on the short list of the game’s all-time great players, with Novak Djokovic possessing the skills and ambition to eventually make that cut as well. All of which makes it more striking every June that none of these rare talents have mounted a serious assault on the game’s signature achievement: a calendar-year Grand Slam.

No woman has won even the first two of the four major titles in the same year since Jennifer Capriati won the Australian Open and the French Open in 2001. No man has won the first two since Jim Courier in 1992.

Twenty-one (years, in this case) just may be the biggest, strangest number of all.“That is a shocker,” Courier said.

What makes it surprising is that these are all-terrain times, when the differences in speed and tactics among surfaces have narrowed and the skill sets required have become more universal.

Nadal, for all his clay-court dominance, also has had great success on hardcourts and grass, winning the other three major tournaments at least once each. Federer also has won all four, and he won three of them in the same year in 2004, 2006 and 2007. Nadal won three in 2010, and Djokovic won three in 2011, losing only at the French Open.But none of these serial champions have managed to make a run at a true Grand Slam. This year, after winning the Australian Open in style in January, Djokovic lost to Nadal in a five-set semifinal worth savoring in Paris.

“I really thought this was Djokovic’s year to win the first two,” Courier said. “It’s truly amazing that no one has done it, given how good these guys are on all surfaces, but they are also fighting with each other.”

Williams, on one of the biggest rolls of her career, is playing against the past as much as the present, but the overriding impression continues to be that first and foremost, she is playing against herself.

When Williams is truly fit and focused, as she was at the Olympics last year or at this French Open, the opposition can seem like stage props as the diva-in-chief belts winners with her serve and returns. When she is vulnerable physically or emotionally, there are suddenly more leading roles to go around.

She has been playing consistently convincing tennis since August 2011, when she first regained her form in earnest after her 11-month layoff resulting from complications of foot surgery, which included blood clots in both lungs that required emergency treatment.

Williams was ranked No 1 before that forced break, too, winning the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2010.

This latest surge, though, is clearly something special. She has won a career-best 31 straight matches, she will be a huge favourite at Wimbledon, and she is producing a level of excellence that encompasses the minor events, not traditionally her stomping ground, as well as the major ones that have long brought out her best. She is 16-4 in Grand Slam finals, an 80 percent strike rate that is among the best in history. Evert was 18-16 and Navratilova 18-14 in large part because of each other. Helen Wills Moody was 19-3.Steffi Graf was 22-9, and the Australian Margaret Court was a remarkable 24-5 in a career that spanned the amateur and Open eras.

Though the former US Open finalist Pam Shriver was certainly correct when she said that Serena was very effective when she was out for tennis revenge, there seems to be much more positive than destructive energy involved. Williams appears happy off the court and particularly happy in Paris, in her pied-a-terre on the Left Bank.

“I have a small apartment,” she said after her victory. “I use the space really well. I decorated it myself. I went to all the markets last year. I did everything, and it’s really cozy. I use a lot of warm and comfortable colours.”

Though she said she still spoke plenty of English in Paris and ran regularly into American students on the street, her French has improved significantly, and her on-court interviews in French grew increasingly confident and expansive during the tournament.“I do remember Jim Courier giving his speech in French,” she said of the 1993 final, which Courier lost to Sergi Bruguera. “And I remember I said, 'I want to give my speech in French.' I don’t know if that’s my first time hearing French. I hope it wasn’t. But that is something that really stood out for me and changed my life.”

Courier said he was impressed by her level. “I think it’s wonderful she’s making that effort,” he said.

Williams and her coach of nearly a year, the Frenchman Patrick Mouratoglou, have been romantically linked in published reports, something that neither has confirmed publicly.When someone alluded to a possible relationship after Williams’s victory in the final over Maria Sharapova, Mouratoglou said, “Sorry, I don’t understand the question.”There is clearly a strong connection between them, and he is now a full-fledged member of her team.

“I think for Serena, nothing is out of reach,” Mouratoglou said when asked if she could challenge Court’s record 24 major singles titles. “If she really wants something, it’s very difficult to stop her.”

A calendar-year Grand Slam is certainly worth wanting. There has not been once since Graf’s in 1988, and although Williams did win four in a row between the French Open in 2002 and the Australian Open in 2003, she has not completed the true Grand Slam.She will not do so this year, either, although she was certainly playing well enough to win the first leg coming into the Australian Open only to sprain her right ankle early in the tournament and eventually lose in the quarterfinals to Sloane Stephens. “The ankle was taped, too,” said Jill Smoller, Williams’s agent, still shaking her head on Saturday.