There is no mystery that the number 24 ranks high among the reasons Serena Williams still wants to do this, even at a stage of her life where tennis and motherhood both occupy her time and her body isn’t as cooperative as it was even a few years ago when she was cranking out Grand Slams at a record pace.
Right now, the quest for one more Slam that would tie Margaret Court’s all-time record, is still on. But Saturday’s third-round loss to 20-year old Sofia Kenin at the French Open was perhaps the most stark reminder yet of the reality of the situation.
With her 23 majors, Williams has a clear claim as the greatest women’s tennis player of all-time. But at age 37 with a creaky knee, a light tour schedule that leaves her short on match preparation and deteriorating form (of late) when she does show up to play, it should now be considered an upset if Williams can match Court, much less surpass her.
Two things about that.
Court having more Grand Slams, if that’s the way Williams’ career finishes, should be totally irrelevant. Foremost among those reasons is that Court won 11 of those titles at the Australian Open, completely dominating in the 1960s when few of the world’s top players even bothered to make the long trip there. It doesn’t diminish what a great player Court was in her era, but it absolutely skews the Grand Slam count.
Second, it would be unwise to completely count Serena out, particularly at Wimbledon. Even with ideal preparation and circumstances, winning another French Open was probably going to be beyond her reach at this point given how challenging the clay has been throughout her career. On the grass, where the rallies are shorter and her serve can still be a big factor, she’ll always have a chance.
But Saturday’s 6-2, 7-5 loss to Kenin, who had never previously been past the third round of a major, seemed like a moment that revealed what kind of challenge Williams now faces in the Grand Slams.
It’s not just the young stars like Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens and Garbiñe Muguruza who have shown both the poise to win Grand Slams and the ability to absorb Williams’ power in pressure moments. Now, to win a title, you have to also get through a whole generation of oncoming talents early in these tournaments like Kenin and 17-year old American Amanda Anisimova, who also advanced to the Round of 16 on Saturday.
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And they’re not afraid of her.
It is already an incredible accomplishment that Williams came back from a pregnancy and childbirth that caused potentially life-threatening complications to make both the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals last year.
Though the odds seemed long that she could mount that quick of a comeback, she was able to reach a level last summer that made it seem like more majors were coming in 2019 and beyond.
But so far this year, Williams’ best tournament was her first: A quarterfinal loss to Karolina Pliskova at the Australian Open. Since then, she’d only played 3 1/2 matches coming into the French Open with one mid-match retirement to Muguruza at Indian Wells and injury withdrawals in Miami and Rome.
Even Williams, as cleanly as she still hits the ball, can’t just show up and pound forehands from the middle of the court and expect to win big matches. Opponents won’t let her get away with that.
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To beat these women in the big tournaments, Williams needs to play more on the regular tour. She pretty much acknowledged that in her post-match press conference Saturday by suggesting she may enter one of the Wimbledon warm-ups on grass this month.
At the same time, knee injuries like the one that forced her to pull out of three tournaments this spring aren’t as easy to come back from when you’re nearing your 38th birthday. And they seemed to have a compounding effect on Williams, who said in Rome that the injury also limited her ability to do cardiovascular training.
With just a month until the start of Wimbledon, there’s time for Williams to get in better shape and tune up her game. If her movement isn’t significantly improved from what we saw in Paris, however, it’s unclear how much that will matter.
But that’s where we are halfway through the 2019 schedule with a larger-than-ever group of women who have the game to win Grand Slams and a declining Williams who will be hard-pressed to turn back the clock.
Tennis has had a funny way of giving the legends one last magical run, even when they’re past their prime. Perhaps that’s coming for Serena, allowing her to cross off the last item on an all-time career résumé.
For now, though, it looks like time may be the one opponent she’ll have trouble beating back.