For the last three years, Serena Williams has been chasing the all-time grand slam singles record of 24 championships held by Margaret Court.
But since clinching an Open era record 23rd major at the 2017 Australian Open – while pregnant with her daughter Olympia – the former top-ranked American has failed to clear the final hurdle.
With tennis having resumed in early August following a five-month shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, Williams’ pursuit of that elusive 24th grand slam title is back on.
Despite earlier than expected defeats in her first two events back, and though she has lost the last four slam finals she has appeared in, the 38-year-old’s huge experience may yet give her the edge over younger opponents at this month’s US Open, her long-time coach said.
“She’ll be competitive,” Patrick Mouratoglou, who has worked with Williams since 2012, told CNN Sport in a phone interview, conducted before her return in Lexington. “It’s easier for the older players because they know themselves so well and they know how to get back in shape after a long break.
“We’ve seen Roger [Federer] being out for six months and winning a grand slam, so those players I think have so much experience, they don’t need so many matches to be competitive,” said the Frenchman, who has guided Williams to 10 major singles championships.
“I think for a younger player it’s a bit tougher for the same reasons; they don’t know themselves that well yet. Especially when they’re progressing that fast, everything’s going well, positive and in a way it breaks that momentum a little bit.”
Williams has been competitive in her first two events back but last week in Lexington and then this week at the Western and Southern Open, which is being held at Flushing Meadows, the American found it difficult to close out matches and suffered surprise quarterfinal and third-round exits, respectively.
She lost to world No. 116, Shelby Rogers in Lexington and then on Tuesday, let slip a commanding lead to lose to world No. 21 Maria Sakkari from Greece.
Confidence has never been an issue for Williams but Mouratoglou has work to do to get her mind on track for a genuine shot at the title.
“I’ve just got to start learning how to win big points,” Williams told reporters after losing to Sakkari, having served for a straight-sets victory. “If I could just focus on how to win that one point, that would be better.
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“I had so many opportunities to win and I have to figure that one out, like how to start winning those matches again. There (are) really no excuses, to be honest.”
Although the younger generation still looks up to her, has Serana lost some of her omnipotent aura?
“It’s not like 10, 15 years ago, whenever Serena and Venus walked around, you could feel what we call ‘locker room respect.’ With the younger generation, I don’t think they fear that,” Daniela Hantuchova, a former world No. 5 from Slovakia who is now a tennis commentator for Amazon Prime in the UK, told CNN Sport in an interview.
If there is anybody who knows how to bounce back from a long break, it’s Williams, who has struggled with a number of serious health issues and injuries since turning pro in 1995.
These include an almost year-long break straight after winning Wimbledon in 2010, during which she underwent surgery for a cut in her foot and was hospitalized for a potentially life-threatening pulmonary embolism.
In 2012, Williams rebounded by winning the Wimbledon title before clinching Olympic singles and doubles gold at the All England Club during the London Games. And in the spring of 2018, Williams made her comeback to the women’s tour eight months after a complicated child birth had left her bedridden for six weeks.
“Serena doesn’t need that many matches to get the momentum going, and she normally improves during tournaments,” said Hantuchova, who played the American 10 times in her career, winning once.
Williams has since reached slam finals in back-to-back years at the US Open and Wimbledon. Unusually, though, Williams lost all of them in straight sets.
Germany’s Angelique Kerber got the better of Williams at the All England Club in 2018, while Japan’s Naomi Osaka defeated the American in a controversial final at the US Open.
Last year, an in-the-zone Simona Halep of Romania completely outplayed the seven-time champion in the Wimbledon final, which was followed by a loss to young Canadian Bianca Andreescu in the US Open final in New York.
While Williams told reporters at the Top Seed Open in Kentucky earlier this month that she had really enjoyed the extra time with her family during the shutdown, she never stopped training.
Given her medical history, Williams said she is reluctant to go to a gym while the pandemic still rages, so her husband, internet entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian, is building her a home gym instead. The pair also built a tennis court near their Florida home, with the same surface as the US Open.
The field in New York won’t be as strong as in previous years because of the pandemic, with six of the women’s top 10 missing, including world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty of Australia and No. 2 Halep, who withdrew because of fears concerning the virus, and the defending champion Andreescu, who has still not fully recovered from injury.
But the strength in depth in the women’s game means that there are still plenty of players capable of winning a grand slam title and the added unknown at this year’s US Open will be the absence of a crowd, with no fans permitted in the stadiums because of virus guidelines.
Williams enjoys huge support wherever she goes around the world, especially in New York, where fans have a reputation for being vocal.
But in Lexington, Williams told reporters that she is quite enjoying the relative calm.
“I don’t dislike it and that’s weird because I am a player that is so emotional and so like, a crowd player,” she said. “Kind of reminds me of the junior days. There is something nostalgic about that. I kind of enjoyed it.”
Though the Cincinnati event is being played at Flushing Meadows, it didn’t initially use the two main courts. Playing at the main Arthur Ashe Stadium at the US Open – the biggest arena in tennis with more than 23,000 seats – without any spectators may take some getting used to.
“Playing in New York is going to be interesting, because the stadium is huge,” said Williams, who is a six-time US Open champion and won her first title in 1999 at the age of 17.
“But I do practice in empty stadiums, so I have played in New York on Arthur Ashe Stadium when it was empty and it was great. I guess I have to kind of lean on that.”
Playing Williams on a big stage, in front of a packed crowd, is one of the most intimidating tasks in tennis for most players, the tension often proving too much, with the fans having helped Williams over the line in big matches on numerous occasions.
The lack of fans can both help and hinder Williams, Hantuchova said.
“I think it is going to help to take the pressure away from her in those big moments, but also there won’t be that crowd intimidation factor against a lower-ranked player,” said Hantuchova.