New York: They did the cool thing, the classy thing, by bringing Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert out to embellish, or even to authenticate, the occasion of Serena Williams joining their 18 Grand Slam singles victory club Sunday evening after Williams toyed with Caroline Wozniacki in the U.S. Open final.
The request was made Saturday, Navratilova would say, after standing with Evert in a corner of court at Arthur Ashe Stadium, waiting for Mary Carillo to cue them to the presentation of the championship trophy and a shiny bracelet. (Match in pics)
Once upon an era, the career-long rivals Navratilova and Evert shared bagels in the locker room before fittingly finishing their careers with the same number of slams. Now it was their turn to hug and welcome into the fold a woman they - and Carillo, the former player and esteemed tennis commentator - didn't always shower with praise, didn't always think gave the game the respect it deserved. (Serena vows to continue her march)
"She's doing it now, and it's paying off," Navratilova said after Williams' 6-3, 6-3 trouncing of Wozniacki reasserted her dominance in the wake of flops in each of the year's previous slams. "I think the sky's the limit."
How high that sky - or tennis heaven, if you'd prefer - is for Williams now depends on how one defines the singles record for Grand Slams. Margaret Court, who played in the Open and pre-Open eras, has 24. Steffi Graf is the exclusive Open era leader with 22. Since Navratilova reasoned that Williams' assault on Graf is likely, we can assume where she stands on this matter.
"That's what she's gunning for," she said, adding, "I don't see it" to the question of whether Williams might soon run out of inspiration, or gas.
All those teenage years protected from the grind by her father, Richard, and all the tournaments avoided or ignored by both Williams sisters as they challenged convention - the drone-and-burnout syndrome - have made Serena a young older player, turning 33 this month.
Navratilova won her last Grand Slam, Wimbledon, at 33. But the fact that Williams has played far fewer matches at the comparative age - Navratilova guessed around 300 - made her believe that Williams should have many more wins in her racket.
And one more thing, Navratilova said. When Serena's head and game are together, the serve and the ground strokes in sync, "it's almost not a fair fight. She's got no peer right now."
Serena of course has Venus, her beloved big sister, still around the tour, bringing family love. She has Wozniacki, the earnest but ultimately weapon-challenged Dane who befriended Serena a couple of years ago and leaned on her shoulder in Miami in the spring after her fiancé, the golfer Rory McIlroy, broke off their engagement.
But beyond Evert and Navratilova escorting her to No. 18, Serena appears to have no deserving opponent by which to measure her greatness. Martina Hingis, only a year older, won her last grand slam title 15 years ago. The talented Belgian women Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters came, had their conquests and graduated to real life.
The teenage Maria Sharapova stunned Serena in the 2004 Wimbledon final and has since beaten her once. Victoria Azarenka showed promise but seemed to fall short of health and belief. Eugenie Bouchard may have the goods but has much growing up to do.
It's not that Serena can't lose; she obviously made a habit out of it this year. It's just that there is no one in women's tennis you actually expect her to lose to when she steps on the court. That is not only a testimony to her longevity, her drive, but also an answer to the early career critics. The Williams way worked.
Not that she's planning on going away soon but, if she did, the best career yardstick for Serena would have to be Venus in her prime, when Serena took five Slam finals from her sister in 2002 and 2003.
She does pay a price for such dominance now in public support, if only because people - even those disinclined to be swayed by her occasional histrionics - would rather not pay good money to watch a train wreck. That's what they got in Sunday's match, and it didn't take very long to suspect it was coming.
When Wozniacki earned a break point in the first game, Williams erased it with a 114-mph ace. When Williams reached break point in the next game, she crushed a winner off an 80-mph second serve. Wozniacki dropped her first three service games. She was broken again to open the second set.
"Like a heavyweight against a middleweight," Navratilova said.
Who wouldn't feel something for the weaker one in such a showdown? The crowd support at times was balanced, despite the presence of American royalty in a sport increasingly short of it. One gallery of fans in the upper tier sang a few verses of "Sweet Caroline." Near the end of the match, a roar went up for Wozniacki after a marathon point - not to be confused with the actual New York City Marathon, which she is planning to run in November.
Wozniacki lost the point but soon after Williams was telling the world about her friend: "She knows the struggles I've been through. We text every day."
Then there were tears, along with Navratilova and Evert, in a well-played scene that's been a long time coming.
"I just never could have imagined that I would be mentioned with Chris Evert or with Martina Navratilova because I was just a kid with a dream and a racket," Williams said.
Now she is right alongside them, in Club 18, but soon will be on her own again. Because another Grand Slam season will begin in five months and nobody in women's tennis stands anywhere close to Serena.
© 2014 New York Times News Service