The first Saturday in June was the best of times and the worst of times for two of the most acclaimed athletes in the world.
At the French Open, Serena Williams shook off the flu and defeated Lucie Safarova in three sets, the third time she has won the French. It was also the 20th Grand Slam win of her career. Williams needs just two more to gain a tie with Steffi Graf for second place in Grand Slam titles. The stretch goal: Matching and then surpassing the record of 24 Grand Slam victories held by Margaret Smith Court.
Woods’ numbers were decidedly less illustrious. On the same day as Williams’s win, he shot the worst round of golf of his career — 85 — during the Memorial at Muirfield Village in Ohio. That led to the worst 72-hole finish for him ever, 302. He has not won a tournament since 2009. The former No. 1 professional men’s golfer is now ranked 172.
The career paths of both these trailblazing athletes will probably continue moving in the opposite direction later this month.
Woods is expected to play in U.S. Open Championship at Chambers Bay, outside Tacoma, WA, June 18-21. He has not won a major title since capturing the U.S. Open in 2008. Just showing up at this year’s Open may count as a moral victory.
Expectations are higher for Williams. Wimbledon begins June 29 in London. Having already won the Australian and French opens, Williams is halfway to achieving the so-called Calendar Year Slam. She needs to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open later this summer to accomplish a rare feat: winning all four major tennis events in the same year. Fittingly, that would put Williams in a tie with Graf for the most career Grand Slam wins, at 22.
(In 1988, Graf became the only woman to achieve the Calendar Year Slam. For good measure, she also won an Olympic gold medal that year.)
Williams’s ascension into the record books of women’s tennis seems assured, while hope is fading that Woods, 39, will ever do what everyone projected: break the record of 18 career major golf wins now held by Jack Nicklaus. Woods now has 14.
Yet, a comeback is possible for Woods, according to the man whose record he is supposed to beat.
“I was terrible at 39,” Nicklaus said during the television broadcast of the Memorial during a discussion of Woods’s travails.Nicklaus doesn’t like that “Tiger is running from teacher to teacher” in an effort to stem his six-year winless streak.
At 39, Nicklaus stepped away from the game that had made him famous and wealthy. “I only touched the clubs three times,” for nearly a year, he said. He then reworked his game; his grip, stance, posture, everything. “Four or five months later I got my game back,” he said. Nicklaus later added to his string of wins at the majors, ending with the Masters in 1986 at the age of 46.
Williams is additional proof that the spoils of victory don’t always favor the young.
While by no means old at 33, Williams is the second-oldest woman to win a Grand Slam singles title. Martina Navratilova was a few months older when she won her last, in 1990 at Wimbledon. Williams is also the oldest player ever to hold the No. 1 ranking since the computer-ranking system was started in 1975.
Williams turns 34 in September. Assuming she ties Graf this year for the most Grand Slam wins among women, she will be in new territory — in terms of age — as she goes after the record held by Court in 2016.
No one can say with certainty how Williams will fare in the future, but she has spent most of her career making losers out of people who bet against her.
Take a lesson from Serena, Tiger. Time is your friend. And so is Jack Nicklaus.