As Jordan Spieth’s last-gasp putt crept past the 18th hole at the Old Course on Monday afternoon, Serena Williams was left alone in pursuit of a rare, profound achievement. Spieth nearly remained attached to Williams, aside her at the epicenter of an incredible summer of American sports. Now it’s only Williams, a singular athlete nearing the end of a singular career aiming at a singular accomplishment. Serena stands alone, again.
One week after Williams won Wimbledon, her 21st major title, to maintain her chance to win her sport’s Grand Slam, Spieth could not survive a Royal Rumble leader board and finished one shot out of a playoff. He will not win all four majors in this calendar year. Williams still might.
Williams’s bid is still alive, perhaps, because it’s the easier task – “easier” being a relative term. Start with history: Williams is seeking to join a small group; Spieth was chasing something that had never been done before.
Three women have won all four majors in the same year, most recently Steffi Graf in 1988. (Williams has held all four titles at the same time, but she did not win them in the same calendar year.) No golfer has ever won the modern version of the Grand Slam. In 1930, four years before the advent of the Masters, Bobby Jones won golf’s four biggest tournaments, which included the U.S. and British amateur titles. Spieth was trying to become the first player since Ben Hogan in 1953 to win the Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open in the same year.
Golf’s Grand Slam has some advantages compared to the tennis version. Spieth faced four different courses that would test his playing style, whereas Williams could face up to 21 different opponents on three different playing surfaces. Golf is less physical and therefore presents a lesser chance of injury derailing a bid.
But there’s probably a reason the tennis Grand Slam has happened and the golf Slam has not. Williams can exert her will over an opponent. Spieth can only play his best against the course and hope it’s good enough. Golf is the more mental game, which makes the pressure of the achievement greater for Spieth – trying harder can work in tennis but can lead to spectacular failure in golf. At the moment, there is simply better competition in men’s golf than women’s tennis. Williams’s opponents almost invariably know they can’t beat her; dozens of golfers pushed a tee in the ground Thursday and rightfully thought they had a chance.
If the elements have an effect on Williams during a match, her opponent must cope with the same challenge. Golfers are at the whims of their tee times and luck. If Spieth hadn’t been forced to play two holes in gales Saturday morning, before tournament organizers quickly halted play, that three-putt he took might never have happened. If Williams ever finds herself in strange weather conditions, her opponent will, too.
It is a special summer in sports, a four-month span that will be etched in memories years from now. The thoroughbred American Pharoah already accomplished a different version of what Williams is aiming for, and Spieth was aiming for, after winning horse racing’s first triple crown since Affirmed in 1978. If only Spieth could speak horse, he could have asked American Pharoah for some advice.
It will be fitting to watch Williams go it alone. For her brilliance and her uniqueness, she deserves the spotlight squarely on her at the U.S. Open during the first two weeks of September.
Williams played her first professional tournament at age 14, in 1995, and 19 years do not pass without trial. From the start she faced a challenge unique to her and her sister, Venus, infiltrating a lily-white sport as an African American from the inner city. Her sport had never seen anyone like her. She navigated that from her early teenage years.
In 2010, Williams sliced a tendon in her foot on a piece of glass, and as a byproduct of the operations required to fix it, she suffered a pulmonary embolism. She then endured a hematoma, a byproduct of a shot she received to prevent a second embolism. Her physical condition deteriorated, naturally, and her tennis suffered. In July 2011, she was ranked 175th in the world. In 2012, she won her fifth Wimbledon and the Olympic gold medal. She has some scars Spieth doesn’t. She has come out the other side.
It was disheartening to watch Spieth roll his birdie putt past the 18th hole, to see another chance at history missed so narrowly. But in this enchanted summer, we still have one more to watch. It’s up to Serena Williams, about six weeks from now in New York, about two decades into her career. She has been playing professional tennis for almost as long as Spieth has been alive. She can achieve the thing Spieth could not, and who would doubt her?