A year ago, Serena Williams left Wimbledon headed for New York and history: the first calendar grand slam since Steffi Graf’s in 1985 was just one win away. Yet there was an unmistakable nervousness about the American, who steadfastly refused to talk about the prospect of adding her own country’s Open title to those she had collected in Melbourne, Paris and London that year.
That she fell short might be traced to that very trepidation. For months she was consumed by the prospect of matching, then overtaking, Graf’s 22 majors. The subject was off-limits in interviews – and the finest player the women’s game has ever seen crumbled in New York, lost to Angelique Kerber in the final in Melbourne and gave way to Garbine Muguruza at Roland Garros.
So, can she repair her psyche and her tennis? Ahead of her opening match against the Swiss qualifier Amra Sadikovic on Tuesday, she insisted: “Honestly, I don’t feel any pressure. I feel good and confident.”
It is not as if people do not want Williams to be in the best possible shape; she is an adornment to the game, an athlete of so many diverse gifts she can make tennis look ridiculously one-sided when in her raging pomp.
So we should listen to her upside view, as well. “I enjoy it on grass,” she said. “It’s usually the only tournament I play on grass. It’s a unique experience. It’s that one time a year you get to get on this amazing, beautiful surface. It feels really good.”
As for losing to Kerber and Muguruza when it mattered most, she said, “Throughout my whole career I have been able to learn a lot [from defeats], to come back a much better player.”
If she needed confirmation of her pedigree – and some times great athletes are the most vulnerable – the numbers are there in plenitude.
By the end of the fortnight, she will have completed 300 weeks as No 1 in the world – with 177 of those stretching back consecutively to February, 2013. Only Graf with 186 strung more together in a row.
She is reaching for her seventh title, to match Roger Federer’s tally, and that would put her alongside Graf and two behind Margaret Court. Also, she continues to defy time: the oldest player to win a major in the Open era, the oldest to be No 1 in the world. It is this longevity that simultaneously inspires awe and doubt: how much longer can she keep going?
Since she turned 30 and joined Patrick Mouratoglou – after losing in the first round of the 2012 French Open – her record has been phenomenal. With the help of her French coach and friend, Williams has won 29 titles, eight of them majors in 16 finals. She has a win-loss ratio of 238-20, or 92.2% – compared with 523-107 (83%) before they met. She also has been more dominant against the best players, winning 88.9% of her matches against top ten opponents, compared with 65.3% before her 30th birthday.
Yet numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Williams is 34 and has had to manage a range of injuries over the past few years – and Muguruza is in the sort of mood to repeat her Parisian success. It is unlikely to be a stroll in the lush green grass of Wimbledon for the American.
“This year I don’t feel as much tension as I usually do,” she said. “Well, there’s some years I haven’t felt any tension, either. I’m feeling pretty good.”
Then a questioner introduced a curve ball: did she think Novak Djokovic could do this year what she failed to do last year, and complete the calendar slam? “He has every opportunity to do it. I think he’ll get it easy. So he should be fine.”
Williams, who has made more sacrifices than most to get to the top of her sport, knows nothing comes easy. And she has great recall about the highs and lows, however she likes to appear calm.
“When I’m walking down those corridors [of the All England Club on to Centre Court], you think of different moments that you’ve had, different moments that you’ve won, or didn’t win. I try not to focus on those moments because I try to create a new moment every time I walk out there.”