Serena Takes Her Shot

Thursday, January 03, 2013 /by

The other day in Brisbane, Serena Williams declared that one of her remaining goals is to perform the greatest feat in tennis: Win a calendar-year Grand Slam.

Asked if she felt she had a shot at that prize this year, Serena replied: “I think for me, absolutely.”

Having a more highly developed sense of public relations at this point in her career, or a sharper desire for hedging what amounts to a very big bet, Serena added: “I think maybe whoever wins the Australian Open will have that same thought. I think there is no way that Victoria (Azarenka) or Maria (Sharapova) or maybe some other players don't feel the same way. So I think I definitely feel that way.”

We’re likely to see whose feeling is most powerful at this early stage of the year tomorrow, when Serena squares off against the woman who looms as her main rival, world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka.

Serena’s record against Azarenka is a nearly spotless 11-1, the lone blemish coming in Miami in 2009. If you remember, that one was a blowout—Azarenka salted away the final barely breaking a sweat, 6-3, 6-1. Serena was 27 years old and No. 1 at the time, but given her personality and career-management, it seemed to many at the time that she might soon be on the way out, with Azarenka on the way in. Azarenka herself must have felt, at least a little bit, like she’d solved the Serena puzzle.

The younger of the Williams sisters continued to slump after that unexpectedly tepid performance. She surrendered her top ranking following a first-round loss in her next tournament (Marbella), and lost her next two matches after that. After falling to Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarterfinals of the French, her next meeting with the rapidly-improving Azarenka—a quarterfinal at Wimbledon—took on special significance.

Serena clobbered Vika, 6-2, 6-3. So much for solving the puzzle. In fact, that was the start of a nine-match winning streak for Serena against Azarenka, and only two of those matches went to three sets. The closest was last year’s U.S. Open final, which might have gone either way. But Serena won it, 7-5 in the third.

A lot of glory has passed under Serena’s bridge since that loss to Azarenka in Miami, and whatever the outcome of their upcoming match, it’s safe to say that Serena is crafting one of the great late-career sagas of the Open era. Here she is, at age 31, and with surgeries and even a life-threatening condition behind her, declaring that her goal is to complete a Grand Slam—a feat which, among other things, would put her right in the thick of the female Greatest of All-Time discussion.

Steffi Graf, who won 22 Grand Slam singles titles (with at least four at each major) seems to me the undisputed GOAT—Margaret Court won 24 major singles titles and a boatload of doubles honors, but she did much of her damage before the Open era. Graf is also the only player of either sex to complete a “Golden Slam,” winning all four majors and an Olympic singles gold medal in 1988.

Granted, talk of a Grand Slam at this stage is wildly speculative, but let’s take a flyer. Should Serena accomplish it, she would have 19 majors. She would also have her own version of a Golden Slam, because after winning Olympic singles gold in London, she would have swept the four majors. All in all, a Grand Slam in 2013 would be an astonishing achievement, and the craziest thing about it is that Serena’s recent record makes it a reasonable possibility. As always, the French Open (where Serena has won just once, in 2002) stands as the greatest obstacle in her way.

Last year, Serena went 58-4. The other day over at ESPN, I wrote that her output compared pretty well to that much-celebrated 2011 season from Novak Djokovic. The Serb went 70-6 that year, winning a significantly larger number of matches despite suffering two more losses. But Serena had the better winning percentage on a statistically valid number of matches.

I make the point mostly to illustrate the momentum Serena carries into the new year. The fact that she turned up to play in Brisbane, before 2013 technically started, also suggests that she’s in a frame of mind to make a big push, perhaps the final big push of her singles career. This is just the second time that Serena has played this event, which suggests that she’s doing her utmost to maximize her chances to win once again in Melbourne.

And then—who knows?

All this is nothing short of Agassi-esque. Who can forget Andre’s late resurgence of desire and commitment? The parallels are striking: Each of them is/was a “big personality” who had yearned for more out of life than tennis seemed to provide. Agassi was 29 when he launched the remarkable final stage of his career in 1999. That year, he appeared in three Grand Slam finals. He completed his career Grand Slam with a win at Roland Garros, lost in the Wimbledon final, then won the U.S. Open.

Serena was 30 when she hit a fifth gear last year. She suffered three of her four losses in 2012 before the mid-point of the year, and lost just once (to Angelique Kerber, in the quarterfinals of Cincinnati) during the last seven months.

This is the same Serena who once was prepared to bolt from Centre Court to the back lots of Hollywood, and we can all be thankful that the TV-movie thing didn’t really work out. Like Agassi, Serena seems to have recognized and embraced her identity as, first and foremost, a tennis champion. The next step in this process essentially consists of handling the various obligations and opportunities that come with that station. Serena may not have the ambassadorial skills of Agassi, but her wacky sense of humor and gift for the spontaneous bon mot are refreshing. Who can forget her response when she was asked if she would settle for the bronze medal at the Olympic games of London?

“Oh, please,” she replied.

Some critics invariably take that as a show of arrogance (you know what they say about a reputation—it’s the easiest thing to get and the hardest thing to lose). And at times Serena can still seem distant and disengaged. But by and large, she appears more relaxed and secure in her dealings with the press and public. That she has applied herself fully to her mission to make the most of what she has left of her career seems indisputable.

Serena had to pull out of an exhibition late in 2012 (and not long before the start of Brisbane) in order to have surgery on her big toes. She was concerned enough about her fitness to request an early start in Brisbane, just so she could bank a day of rest later in the week, in the event her toes gave her trouble.

“Everything was fine,” she said after her first win in Brisbane.

These days, Serena seems to be impersonating the first kid to arrive at school, or the point guard who’s doing wind sprints 10 minutes before the official start of practice. This may be a new version of the 15-time Grand Slam champion, but there’s nothing new about what that means for her rivals—all of which makes her upcoming match with Azarenka compelling, as the maneuverings in her grand quest get underway tomorrow.

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