She’s supposed to win every match she ever competes in. She’s the favourite for every tournament she enters. But in 2014, it hasn’t quite happened for the great Serena Williams in the Grand Slams, the ones that really matter to the players and fans alike.
In Melbourne, Paris and London she’s failed to even make the quarter-finals. There’s still time this year to align with Martina Navratilova and Chrissie Evert though on an extraordinary 18 major titles, as we head to the lights of New York City for the final Slam of the season.
For any other player, five titles in a year would be a hugely satisfying return. Serena has won tournaments in Brisbane, Miami, Rome, Stanford and Cincinnati. However, despite all these, there’s the Grand Slam performances placing a dampener on proceedings in the Williams’ camp.
In the Australian sunshine, an injury-hit Williams lost in the fourth round to Ana Ivanovic. The Serbian, herself, has had a terrific year, getting back into the world’s top 10. Losses at Roland Garros and Wimbledon were more stunning. Possibly the biggest upset of recent times was in Paris, where Garbine Muguruza beat the top seed and favourite 6-2 6-2 in the second round.
That match signalled a “change-of-era” call by the victorious Spaniard herself, commenting to The Guardian that “a change is coming.” She also said: “This year a lot of young girls are playing really well. These things are going to happen. Sometime the new generation [has to] come through and I think now is the moment”.
Then, at the All England Club in the third round, feisty Frenchwoman Alize Cornet strengthened that argument by beating Serena in three sets. This was less of a shock, as Cornet had won a match-up between the two earlier in the season.
Where have these “young girls” been in between the Slams though? Since, in those events, it’s been business as usual for Serena, wiping her opponents off the court. But, seemingly, the pressure of being the favourite and having the trophy virtually handed to her before a serve has been swiped has been a little too much for her on the main stage. In all three big ones so far, she’s been very nervous and erratic at times.
Wimbledon was definitely the low point of the year, where Serena was visibly unwell and had to pull out after serving a game of double faults in a match playing with sister Venus. The fiasco was put down to a virus yet there were lingering questions over the mental state of the younger tennis-playing sister, particularly after her somewhat bizarre performances in press conferences during the fortnight. At one point, when asked how long it took to recover from her loss to Muguruza in Paris, Serena replied: “Who says I was over it?”
Since Wimbledon, Serena has mostly returned to doing what she does best: Winning. It was a rocky road to a title in Stanford but the performances have been getting better and better, culminating in another big title in Cincinnati (her first there). ESPN’s Johnette Howard summed up Williams’ hard-court swing: “Serena's tear since her Wimbledon meltdown has signalled the hunger is back, heading into this US Open.”
This summer in North America, she has looked exceptionally fit and in shape. If she plays at her best, as Andrea Petkovic commented at Stanford, “we’re [other WTA players] all basically screwed.”
It’s that real top level, or just even somewhere around it, that the world No. 1 is striving to discover in New York. A third straight title on Arthur Ashe’s court won’t make up for the failures in the other three majors, but it would be a welcome consolation after the difficult period that team Williams have all had to negotiate their way through.
It almost seems now that getting through the first week of the Slam without a hitch is the tricky bit for Serena. She needs to get some easy wins under her belt and settle the nerves early on, and then everything should fall into place.
So, at Flushing Meadows, the top seed and two-time defending champion, who has already wowed crowds in New York with some karaoke, will open against upcoming fellow American Taylor Townsend. The 18-year-old made a name for herself at the French Open, making it to the third round on her first Grand Slam appearance. She’s in the same quarter as eighth-seed Ana Ivanovic, who she beat for the title in Cincinnati. Petra Kvitova or Eugenie Bouchard could await in the semi-finals.
It’s a decent draw for Serena, avoiding her sister, bookies’ second title-favourite Maria Sharapova and the in-form Wozniacki, who are all in the opposite half of the draw. None of the opening three rounds should be a problem at all. Sam Stosur could be a test in round four, after their recent 7-6 7-6 contest in Cincy, in Williams’ favour. Both Kvitova and Bouchard have looked far from convincing in the build-up to New York.
As we began, Serena is the favourite. Playing at her best, she will win every match. Her most feared opponent is her own mind, which does seem to be more at ease since it’s been pacing around the hard courts of North America. But the pressure is building even more. The world No. 1 has to perform under the bright lights of the Big Apple to prove that she’s not done dominating just yet and counter any push from the young guns that sense a glimmer of vulnerability.