On early Saturday morning, I watched Serena Williams take her 19th grand slam with a 6-3 7-6 win over Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open.
It was vintage Williams—dramatic, error-prone and masterful with a powerful serve unrivaled in the history of the women’s game. Now at 33-years-old, she has a realistic chance of catching Steffi Graf and Margaret Court, who own 22 and 24 slams, respectively.
Williams’ chase of her sport’s most hallowed records conjured thoughts of another native southern Californian chasing history—Tiger Woods—who on Friday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open shot an 82, his worst competitive round since turning pro in 1996.
There was the Tiger Slam and the Serena Slam, where they each held all four of their sport’s grand slams titles at the same time.
They have been the most exciting two champions that these sports had ever seen and they are both African-American with fathers, who taught themselves their respective sports so that they could pass it on to their children.
What unfolded in Phoenix and Australia illustrates the different directions these players are headed in their careers.
Fifteen years after her first grand slam at the 1999 U.S. Open, Serena is still the No. 1 women’s player in the world, while Tiger struggles to simply make cuts during a period when he tries to break Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors.
Sure, Tiger has battled injuries, coaching changes and other life challenges, but so has Serena.
Jon Leach, who is married to retired tennis pro, Lindsey Davenport, told the New York Times after Serena’ win on Saturday: “Serena has reinvented herself, I feel, like three or four times, and now she’s as strong and dominating as ever.”
Meanwhile, Tiger struggles to reinvent himself coming off back surgery in 2014 and his third coaching change since 2004, when he hired Hank Haney after working with Butch Harmon through his first eight years on tour.
On Friday, Tiger talked of being caught between “old patterns and new patterns,” his explanation of why he can seemingly no longer execute basic chip shots around the green.
On the other end of the earth, Serena was full of gratitude in her reflections on her gritty performance against a resilient Sharapova.
“Growing up,” she said, “I wasn’t the richest. But I had a rich family in spirit and support and standing here with 19 championships is something I never thought would happen.
“I went on the courts with just a ball and a racket and a hope, and that’s all I had.”
A ball. A racket. And a hope.
Serena may have a wonderful coach and fitness trainer, but she continues to succeed at the highest level because of her grit and determination to win often against great odds.
In the semifinals against Madison Keys, Serena was matched stroke for stroke by the 19-year-old American. At various points during match, Serena looked overwhelmed with the power of Keys, but she held her ground as the greatest fighter of her generation.
It’s hard to know from Tiger’s recent performances if he still has that fight. On Friday, he joked that he was only meeting the media so that he wouldn’t get fined.
More than at any point in his career, Tiger has become an expert explainer: proficient in the description of all the nuances of failure through the peculiarities of swing changes, injuries, weightlifting, grain on greens and anything else that helps to demonstrate his nerdy approach to the game.
This expansive attention to detail has helped make Tiger a 79-time PGA Tour winner, but at 39-years-old, perhaps, it’s time for him to summon the heart and will that led him to the last of 14 majors at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, where he played with two stress fractures in his left leg.
Over the years, Tiger has developed a close friendship with Roger Federer, a 17-time grand slam winner, who now at 33-years-old struggles to stay relevant within the elite of men’s tennis. But it might do Tiger some good to look toward what Serena has been able to do over roughly the same period as his own career.
There might be a good sports psychologist in Tiger’s future, if there already isn’t one in his life.
Colt Knost, a 29-year-old tour player, meaning no harm to Tiger, raised perhaps the best question of the week on his Twitter account: “I watched Tiger hit balls for 30mins yesterday on the range and he absolutely striped it! Something is going on it that head of his.”
Close observers and even the casual fan understand that Tiger has a much deeper problem than swing changes and injuries.
He’s in the wilderness now: a place that he can only come out of if he looks inward.
Serena Williams has known this lonely place and she’s a better player and person for it.
A ball. A racket. And a hope.
It’s way too soon to project Tiger’s recent performance in Phoenix as an indication that his days are over as a top player. He could win next week at Torrey Pines, where he has eight victories.
All that is certain is that whatever he needs to break Jack’s record and win majors, Serena’s already got it.