2 Americans Going for Slam History in UK

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If Serena Williams, as all will logically assume, defeats Spanish sensation Garbine Muguruza on Saturday to claim her sixth Wimbledon title (and 21st Slam overall) she will be just one Slam removed from achieving that most difficult of tennis records – the calendar-year Grand Slam. And if she were to do so, it would be an extraordinary achievement, one that would equal that of Steffi Graf’s Grand Slam year of 1988. Graf was the last player - male or female – to win the calendar-year Slam.

While this is jumping the gun a bit, the reality is that there is no one who can consistently threaten Williams in women's tennis right now. There is no great rival, for they’ve all been extinguished. The only obstacle to Williams accomplishing the Grand Slam is herself. While the powerful Muguruza is capable of putting together vicious winners from all sides of the court, her style plays right into Williams’ hands. Williams likes power, as her utter career dominance over Maria Sharapova reflects; it’s the players with more variety to their games that have a better chance of pulling off an upset.

Consider that in 1988, the 19-year-old Graf, already heralded for years as the future of sport (she played her first tour match at the age of just 13), was just entering the peak of her career and took advantage as the old guard of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert were exiting the stage. While Navratilova would prove to be a potent force in the sport for several more years the fact is she only won one Slam after 1987, when she claimed Wimbledon in 1990. Evert’s last Slam title was in 1986. The woman who was supposed to be Graf’s main career rival, Gabriela Sabatini, never became her great foil; that would be left to Monica Seles, who exploded onto to the scene in 1990.

A better analogy with Williams’ possible Grand Slam is that of Rod Laver notching his incredible second calendar-year Grand Slam in 1969. While his first Grand Slam in 1962 can be diminished slightly because so many players had turned pro and were ineligible to play the majors, that wasn’t the case in 1969. Laver had to defeat Hall of Famers in each of the four majors that year (Andres Gimano, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe and Tony Roche). Laver (31 years old), like Williams now (34), was past the age when players are normally at the very end of their careers. Laver never won a Slam again after 1969 and this is where the comparison ends; it defies belief to think that Williams will not continue to win majors for another year or two.

The other American who has a chance – albeit a much slimmer one – to make sporting history in the United Kingdom this July is Jordan Spieth. The still 21-year-old (he’ll be 22 in a couple of weeks) phenom has grabbed the Masters and U.S. Open titles in 2015 and is now trying to become the only man other than Ben Hogan to claim the first three majors in a calendar year when he competes at St. Andrews next week.

Hogan accomplished this amazing feat in 1953. Unfortunately for Hogan, he never had a chance to go for the full Grand Slam since, incredibly, the PGA and British championships overlapped (Hogan won the British Open that year in his only appearance). Tiger Woods is the only other golfer to win three majors in a single year (2000). Spieth's claiming the Masters and U.S. Open consecutively is rare enough as it’s only been done five times: Hogan in 1951 and 1953, Nicklaus in 1972, and Woods in 2002.

While the tennis calendar-year Grand Slam is rare, having been accomplished by only two men (Laver and Don Budge) and three women (Mo Connolly, Margaret Court and Graf), it’s proved to be impossible in golf. Which is why if any golfer were to accomplish a calendar-year Slam it would have to go down as one of the top two or three sporting records of all time, in any sport.

Golf is obviously a far more random sport than is tennis, by the nature of the game – one is playing against the field instead of physically battling an opponent, so there’s no chance of altering the outcome against a foe, save for any mental pressure. This is the opposite of tennis where it’s more mathematical – player A vs. player B, yielding far fewer surprise champions.

One needs only to examine the number of repeat champions in men’s tennis and golf over the last decades. Starting with 1958 in golf (the first year that all four major championships went to stroke play) and 1968 with tennis, the start of the Open era (the French Open ushered in open play that year):

Golf – 230 majors played, 73 one-time champions – 32%

Tennis – 188 major played, 25 one-time champions – 13%

Since 1958, nearly one-third of all golf champions are of the one-and-done variety, which makes the dominance and consistency of Nicklaus and Woods so truly extraordinary. They are the outliers of outliers. The fact that golfers can stay relevant into their mid 40s also makes the pool of potential champions so massive. Whereas in tennis, there is a very narrow window of greatness, usually about three to four years. (This doesn’t apply to the recent era, however, as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have each had a decade of challenging for Slams, even if their careers are winding down).

Whatever the case, it’s truly extraordinary to have both Williams and Spieth putting together such brilliant seasons concurrently. With Williams seeming to be a lock for the Slam at this point, if Spieth were to somehow triumph on the Old Course at St. Andrews next weekend, the late summer sports viewing will become that much more riveting and mandatory.

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides occasional commentary for RealClearSports. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

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