Serena Williams is definitely not the ambivalent type. You just wouldn't know it from some of her quotes this week at Wimbledon. Her latest tactic for dealing with the snowballing pressure of winning the calendar year Grand Slam isn't all that different from how Miguel Cabrera handled the closing days of his push to win baseball's Triple Crown in 2012, or how Jordan Spieth is approaching his chance of becoming the first modern era golfer to sweep four majors in the same year.
Williams has essentially told reporters over and over that she'd rather not dwell on adding the third leg of the Slam to her French Open and Australian Open titles, but hey, thanks for making my blood pressure spike to up a million and three.
"Honestly I don't think about it, but every time I come into press, you guys talk about it," Williams said. "So naturally it's definitely getting more on my mind than I want it to be, than what it has been."
"So I should stop asking?" Williams' interviewer asked.
"Hint, hint," Williams said with a smile.
Williams is usually one of the most unapologetically aggressive players in the sport. Cabrera, the Tigers' All-Star first baseman, has always seemed to throw off a sort of easygoing, almost amused air when he plays, too. Yet he called winning his Triple Crown "a relief" and admitted the chase had exhausted him.
It just goes to show that while the romance of witnessing such sustained brilliance fascinates the rest of us, the stress the athletes feel to pull it off becomes an opponent, too. If not the only one.
Baseball waited 45 years for someone to break a Triple Crown drought dating back to Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Bobby Jones is the only golfer to have ever won a four-major Grand Slam (albeit he did it in 1930, when the British Amateur and U.S. Amateur -- which have since been replaced by the Masters and PGA Championship -- were counted as part of the quartet). Horse racing's last Triple Crown winner before American Pharoah finally pulled it off this summer was Affirmed, back in 1978. Only three tennis players in the Open era -- Rod Laver (1969), Margaret Court (1970) and Steffi Graf (1988) -- have swept all four majors in the same calendar year.
Serena said this week, "There's a reason it doesn't happen very often."
Health. Fatigue. Luck. Vagaries of weather and travel. Having to maintain sustained brilliance day in and day out over baseball's seven-month regular season grind like Cabrera did requires toughness. The start-and-stop nature of tennis and golf is a different kind of challenge.
Some Triple Crowns have been lost when horses like Big Brown woke up on the wrong side of the paddock and didn't run well come Belmont day.
Others have been won because the horses were found to have something ineffably great that separated them. Secretariat completed his 1973 sweep by a record 31 lengths at Belmont in the fastest time ever. He literally had an enormous heart -- it weighed 21 pounds, or nearly three times what a typical thoroughbred's heart weighs.
Affirmed's great rivalry races with Alydar, the runner-up in all three 1978 Triple Crown races, were decided by 1.5 lengths at the Kentucky Derby, a neck at the Preakness and a nose at the wire in the Belmont. Affirmed might've been the sport's most tenacious competitor ever.
What horsemen kept raving about American Pharoah, this year's Triple Crown winner, was his amazing natural stride -- the way he seemed to fly over the track, his hooves more skimming than sinking into the dirt.
So genetics obviously help. Having supremely honed skills goes unsaid too. Nobody who has accomplished a Slam sweep or Triple Crown in any sport wasn't an all-time great. It's not something a plugger has ever risen up and pulled off because he or she just happened to put together a few magical weeks.
But having a little luck isn't all bad, either.
Cabrera didn't know until the last day of the 2012 season that his .330 average, 139 RBIs and 44 home runs were going to be enough to complete baseball's 17th Triple Crown. It didn't hurt that the Yankees' Curtis Granderson asked out of his final at-bat in that day rather than risk being the spoiler. Granderson hit two homers earlier in the game to move just one behind Cabrera for the AL home run title. It was pretty clear that Granderson -- who had taped a congratulatory video to Cabrera before the game -- was doing his former Detroit teammate a solid.
(The Yankees were on the other end of a similar gift two years later when Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright told reporters he gave Derek Jeter a couple of "pipe shots" -- meaning fat pitches right over the plate -- because Jeter was playing in his last All-Star Game and deserved it. Jeter hit a double.)
Spieth and Williams probably wouldn't mind if a friend in their events did them a similar favor. They could just never publicly say so.
Wainwright's admission created such an uproar, he backtracked and called himself a "knucklehead" and "idiot."
Serena is on track to play sister Venus in the fourth round at Wimbledon. But if Venus gets there and suddenly withdraws, citing Sjogren's syndrome or some new ailment, brace yourself. The conspiracy theorists will resume their bleating that the Williams family isn't above "fixing" matches between the sisters, an insult that deserved to die long ago.
Spieth is already at the center of a different debate. In a way, Spieth already has had the sort of four-leaf-clover moment that Cabrera was handed by Granderson. Spieth was the beneficiary of a Dustin Johnson three-putt on the final hole of the U.S. Open. Johnson missed a 12-footer to win the title outright and a 4-footer to, at worst, force a playoff with Spieth.
"I'm stunned," Spieth confessed. He blinked and ran a hand through his hair like a man who had just walked out of a plane crash unscathed, unable to believe his good luck.
Asked next about his just-hatched chance to perhaps sweep all the Slams, Spieth smiled and noted, "I'm the only one who can now, right?"
But is he going about it the right way? Unlike Serena, who pulled out of the Wimbledon doubles draw before the tournament to conserve energy in her chase of the singles title, Spieth has decided not to withdraw from this week's John Deere Classic to rest and better prepare for next week's British Open at St. Andrews. You don't need MapQuest to know Silvis, Illinois, and Scotland are a fair piece of land and one big ocean apart.
By not skipping the John Deere, the 21-year-old isn't just ignoring the time difference he'll face once in Scotland. There's also the challenge of having to adjust to links golf, which is very different from the typical manicured conditions here.
That said, Spieth's way of dealing with his chase of history seems to be a fallback a lot of athletes choose in high-pressure times: Stick to your normal routine. Do what you'd normally do. Don't change a thing.
It's hard to say what's right. But golf writer Geoff Shackelford perfectly framed on his blog the argument that Spieth is making a mistake: "Yes, the loyalty is admirable, but at his Hall of Fame induction will he be remembered for his loyalty to the John Deere Classic, or perhaps for having made a run at easily the greatest accomplishment in our sport: winning the modern Grand Slam?"
A lot of variables go into making history. But nobody knows the fail-safe blueprint to complete a Triple Crown or Grand Slam.
As Williams said, "There's a reason it happens so rarely."