grand slam

It may seem unsporting to draw attention to the linguistic errors of athletes and their ilk, but I think they become fair game when they intentionally ignore or distort established meanings, especially when motivated by a blatant desire for sensationalism. I have found this practice to be particularly objectionable in the realm of tennis, and indeed, emblematic of the deterioration of that sport that began with the institution of so-called open tennis in 1968.

From the beginning, it was understood that the commercial success of open tennis would require a number of changes in order to appeal to the mainstream sports fan—changes in the game itself, as well as in the manner in which we speak about it. Thus, the score of a game could never again be reported as love-forty; instead, we would thenceforth be treated to the more thrilling triple break point. Bud Collins, a popular television commentator of the 1970's, took it upon himself to broaden the meaning of the term service ace to include any "virtually unreturnable" serve. His idea, apparently, was that since aces are an appealing feature of the game, amenable to the sort of statistical analysis on which sports fans seem to thrive, it would be good if they occurred more often and were discussed more thoroughly. The result was that, for a while, one could not listen to a televised match without hearing Collins shriek "Ace!" at every netted service return. Fortunately, this innovation never caught on.

In contrast, the term grand slam has been abused so persistently that its original meaning is now seriously threatened. The grand slam, of course, is the ultimate feat of tennis, that of winning the four major championships—French, American, British, and Australian—in a single calendar year. This has been achieved by only five players: Don Budge (1938), Maureen Connelly (1953), Rod Laver (1962 and 1969), Margaret Court (1970), and Steffi Graf (1988). ( Here is a more complete history of these championships, as well as an example of the sort of abuse of terminology with which we are concerned here.) In particular, notwithstanding her public protests to the contrary, Martina Navratilova never won a grand slam. Her frustration is understandable, as she managed to record an uninterrupted string of six major titles, winning Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Australian Open in 1983, followed by the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open in 1984. But, alas, no four of these occurred in the same calendar year and hence, no grand slam for Martina.

Others have been similarly impatient in their quests for the elusive grand slam. In a television interview in December, 1972, after losing at the Australian Open, Billie Jean King congratulated herself for having won three of the four "grand slam events" that year. To my horror, this terminology was quickly accepted as standard. (Mrs. King may also be remembered for her association with team tennis, a short-lived enterprise apparently based on the premise that a typical fan who lived, for example, in New York would take a natural chauvinistic interest in the collective success of some over-the-hill Australians who happened to be on the payroll of the New York Lets in their competition with similar groups with names like the Boston Lobsters.)

Today, it is unusual to hear a report of the outcome of a major tournament without being reminded that it is a grand slam event, and when written, the phrase is usually capitalized for emphasis. This is an example of the style of reporting that Wilson Follett called journalese, which is characterized by exaggeration and contrived excitement and which, "owing to the public's daily exposure to it, is particularly contagious." It is also a product of convoluted logic: the significance of the grand slam is derived from that of each of its component tournaments, and not the other way around. It would be no more absurd to refer to every hit in a baseball game as a cycle event, or to every goal scored in a hockey game as a hat trick event.

But it gets worse. Grand Slam event has given way to Grand Slam title, which in turn has come to be routinely abbreviated as Grand Slam. Thus, on the day following Pete Sampras's victory in the 2002 U.S. Open final, Associated Press reported that "He did have a 14th Grand Slam title in him." So much for Laver's measly two.

During a televised ceremony following Roger Federer's Wimbledon 2009 title victory, which was attended by both Laver and Sampras, Pete was asked whether there remained any doubt that Federer was "the best ever", having won "fifteen grand slams". Although Sampras had the presence of mind to disallow that he could say any such thing with Laver in the room (and a subsequent telephone interview confirmed that this consideration was in fact his only reservation), neither he nor anyone else bothered to point out that Laver was the only man present to have achieved the feat even once. And if anyone ever really does post another grand slam, what superlatives will be left to us with which to describe it?

With that off my chest, I suddenly find myself in a rather generous mood. So let's return to the sad case of Martina Navratilova, and see if we can appease her whining without weakening our definition, perhaps by exploiting the ambiguity of the term calendar year. While the traditional Gregorian grand slam remains out of the question for Martina, there are other calendars at our disposal. For example, the one that was in use during the Greek Olympiad era had a year that began with the summer solstice. Hence, her string of victories that began with Wimbledon in 1983 and continued through the French Open in 1984 may reasonably be claimed by Martina as an Olympic Grand Slam. Similarly, a Zoroastrian Grand Slam may be said to comprise her wins from the U.S. Open of 1983 through the following Wimbledon, all of which fell within the year 2373 of that calendar. And yes, with her next victory at the U.S. Open, near the end of the year 5744, came the only Hebrew Grand Slam in the history of tennis. Mazel Tov, Martina!