There are few players who command as much respect as Martina Navratilova, the winner of 18 Grand Slam singles titles (including an astonishing nine at Wimbledon) and a long-time world No. 1 throughout the 1980s.
But even Navratilova, in Melbourne to participate in the Australian Open legends event, acknowledges her status as one of the greatest among the modern-day giants is in danger of being usurped by Serena Williams.
Still commanding an audience at age 56, the prolific champion is someone that many members of the media gravitate towards at an official event at Melbourne Park. The topic of interest for most journalists is how Navratilova feels about Serena replicating or even bettering her own Grand Slam achievements.
The pragmatic Navratilova doesn’t hesitate: Serena, she says, could well “break all records” from recent years. Already Serena holds an Open Era record five Australian Open titles, and with a total of 15 Grand Slams on her resume, Navratilova’s haul of major titles might be the next milestone.
That’s especially true, Navratilova reminds an attentive audience, when you consider that she claimed the last of her own majors at Wimbledon in 1990 when she was 34 years old. At age 31, Serena seemingly has time on her side when it comes to matching Navratilova’s 18 (a number Chris Evert also achieved), or even Steffi Graf’s 22 majors or Margaret Court’s 24.
“Serena is very healthy, very motivated and in tennis terms she’s very young because I think at her age, I’d played about twice as many matches that she has,” Navratilova surmised, adding that Serena’s physical imposing style could add to her longevity.
“She’s got young legs at 31, which should be helpful. The way she plays, her matches are not that physical, it’s not that long ... she can win quickly. If she stays healthy and stays motivated, absolutely she can break my record. “
Far from concerned about having to share some space in the record books, Navratilova is instead paying attention to the natural generational progression, noting that Serena’s legacy in the modern era will most likely be her power game.
“Before she came around, I think Monica Seles took it to another level with the power from both sides. But I think Serena has the power and is a better athlete and much stronger physically, so she took it to a new level,” Navratilova pointed out.
“There’ll be somebody else, maybe six foot two (188cm), that’s just as fast and has an even bigger serve. That’s the evolution of sports. Every generation brings something new to the table.”
The chance to cast an eye over the current crop of players is one of many side-benefits for the players contesting the Australian Open legends event. Amelie Mauresmo, Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Iva Majoli and Barbara Schett are among the contenders, and with some of them balancing their on-court time with coaching or commentating roles, the still-competitive women are making the most of every scouting opportunity.
Hingis, who is now a part-time advisor to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and other players at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy in Paris, has been keeping careful watch of this year’s Australian Open favourites, and is pleased her crafty playing style has provided a blueprint of sorts for the similarly tactical Agnieszka Radwanska.
“But she still has to win one!” a smiling Hingis says of the fourth seed’s Grand Slam credentials.
It’s a good-natured reminder that while every generation of players bring something new to tennis, Navratilova, Hingis and co can be comfortable in the knowledge of having made their own mark already.