When Serena Williams won Wimbledon in 2015 the world of tennis felt that it was inevitable that she would go on to win the US Open that September. Serena had her perfect year all laid out because with that title would come the completion of the calendar Grand Slam, meaning that she had won all four major titles that year. Only Margaret Court and Steffi Graf had achieved such a feat in the Open Era. A 2015 US Open title would also be the 22nd Grand Slam singles title for Serena which would draw her level with Graf. There was a lot riding on her home Slam.
By now we all know the story of the 2015 US Open. Serena went into the tournament as world number one, a tournament she had won the last three times in a row. The world expected New York to be the place where Serena wrote herself into the record books. Roberta Vinci however, had other ideas. The experienced Italian sent shockwaves throughout the world when she defeated Serena in three sets in the semi finals. The prospect of a calendar Grand Slam had evaporated as Vinci produced the best display of her career to set up an all Italian final.
Whilst most people will have seen this as a blip or perhaps held a view point that being on the cusp of achieving something so huge will have caused Serena to become nervous when it came to the crunch, I was pondering over a different idea. Was the great Serena Williams declining? Were we witnessing the very first signs of her powers starting to wane? Serena was fast approaching her 34th birthday and prior to that US Open was the 3rd oldest player in the WTA top 100. Age catches up with everybody, even the greats and I couldn't help but wonder if this was the beginning of the end of what had been a fairy tale story.
When the Australian Open came around in January 2016 it would have taken a brave person to bet on anyone but Serena. She had won four of the last five Grand Slams and the person who had won the other, Flavia Pennetta, had now retired. Surely no one was going to challenge her? The top 10 seeded players were dropping like flies in an unbearably hot Melbourne. Simona Halep and Venus Williams were knocked out in round one with Petra Kvitova checking out in round two. Whilst Garbine Muguruza and Karolina Pliskova were losing in the third round, Serena was strolling through her matches without losing a single set and rarely losing more than a couple of games in each match.
As Serena brushed aside Maria Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska for her place in the final, her last remaining opponent had also been dispatching some big names of her own. Angelique Kerber had defeated Victoria Azarenka and surprise package Johanna Konta for her place in the final. She had lost just one set in her route to the final, back in round one. Not to be out done however, Serena had reached the final without losing a single set. It promised to be a great match.
Kerber came through to win her first Grand Slam title and become the first German woman to win one since Steffi Graf won number 22 in 1999. Serena was stuck on 21 Grand Slam titles and would have to wait for the French Open for yet another chance to equal Graf. With Roland Garros being her least favourite Slam, having only won it three times (I know, ONLY three!), it would surely be a difficult task.
The French Open of 2016 came and went for Serena as disappointment was yet again, the order of the day. She would be made to settle for a runner up spot yet again, this time to Muguruza who undeniably deserved her first Grand Slam title. It was another chance gone begging for Serena and although clay is not her favourite surface, she did have to dig deeper than usual once or twice to even make the final. A tough match against the unseeded Yulia Putintseva was one of two or three hard fought victories. In my mind, this continuation of falling at the final hurdle was only further proving what I had thought since Flushing Meadows, Serena was declining. Sure she was still a top player, if not the best, but something had changed now, she was beatable and everybody knew it.
Not wanting to be written off and no doubt dreading the idea that she would fall short of the target set by Graf, Serena upped her game for Wimbledon 2016. It had been a whole year since Serena had won a Grand Slam and winning number 22 not only put her on a par with the German great, it proved that she still had something to give. It was a fairly leisurely stroll to the Wimbledon title for the American, as even Kerber was brushed aside in the final without any major scares. Serena had finally drawn level with Graf. Cue the conversations about who is the best of all time.
Serena could not win the US Open in 2016 to over take Graf as she ducked out in the semi finals for the second year running, losing to Pliskova in straight sets. She does still of course have more chances to come as the 2017 Australian Open fast approaches. Realistically there are still only four or five women who I think can go toe to toe with Serena and take her down when the pressure is really on. Kerber, Muguruza, Pliskova, Keys and Kvitova are the players that I believe, on their day, are equipped to defeat her. Yes Vinci beat her in 2015 and Svitolina, Azarenka and Kuznetsova all beat her in 2016 but should Serena meet Svitolina, Vinci or Kuznetsova at the Australian, I know where my money would be.
If Serena does win Grand Slam number 23 then many will argue that she is the superior player although there are more stats than just Grand Slam titles that can't be ignored. Graf has won more singles titles overall and has a higher win percentage, but as well as being tied on Grand Slam singles titles, they are also tied on WTA Tour Finals titles (five each) and Olympic singles gold medals (one each). Serena has won the Fed Cup once and the Hopman Cup twice, with Graf holding the reverse of that record with two Fed Cup titles and one Hopman Cup title. They really are neck and neck.
Graf will of course always have the fact that she completed the Golden Slam in 1988 where, as well as winning all four Grand Slam titles, she also won Olympic Gold. A remarkable achievement that may never be matched again. The question here though is whether or not Serena will surpass the 22 Grand Slam titles that Graf won. It can also be extended further and asked whether she can catch Margaret Court's record of 24? Personally I believe it all comes down to Australia. If Serena does not win number 23 in Melbourne then I am not sure it will ever happen for her. If she wins in Australia, then Court will be in her sights. With every defeat that she suffers however, all the other players on tour will see that she is beatable. She has been a phenomenon of 21st century tennis and has no doubt inspired so many young players but at 35 years old, you have to think that there are women on tour that maybe want it more and have a bit more in their locker when it comes to the really exhausting matches.
Serena will be able to bash her way through the lower ranked players with relative ease, there is no doubt about that, but if she meets one of the five players I mentioned earlier and it goes to a deciding set in the 40 degree heat of Melbourne can she sustain that same level? The likes of Kerber won't fear Serena any more and why should she? Kerber is the number one player in the world and the current holder of two Grand Slam titles so surely she is the one to be feared. With greatness however comes that aura that always prevents people from writing them off. The likes of Djokovic and Serena can be match point down and yet I still expect them to come back into the match. They are not defeated until the umpire says so.
Great players prove doubters wrong, it is part of what makes them great. I have been a doubter of Serena for 12 months now because I just feel that age has to catch up with her at some point. There have been a few displays from Serena over the last 12 months that has made me think I am right, but then the way she won Wimbledon at 2016 made me question my belief. I don't think Serena will win the Australian but she may well make the Wimbledon final as I am yet to see another player who really impresses me on the grass. The comeback of Maria Sharapova may still play a part in this saga and if Azarenka was on tour for 2017 I would be backing her to win a Slam. I believe that Serena will end her career tied with Graf in more statistics than one. It would be kind of nice if it finished that way, it would provide tennis fans with a timeless debate over who was the better player, Serena Williams or Steffi Graf.
YOU CAN NOW GET AHEAD OF THE GAME AND SUBSCRIBE TO TSV HERE