Serena Williams turns 34 in September. She's eyeing her first calendar-year Slam and Steffi Graf's open-era record of 22. With Margaret Court's 24 Slams within reach, could Williams hang around long enough to win a Slam in her 40s?
It seems unbelievable; however, it's achievable.
''I'd like to believe the older I get, the better I get," Williams said, per the Associated Press (h/t SI.com), after winning her sixth Miami Open.
When asked if she could win 12 Miami Opens, she laughed, and while counting on her fingers, she told reporters, "I hope not. Because I would still be here—I would be how old? Yeah, no. Let's pray that I don't get to 12."
In six years, Williams will be 40. Six years is a career in many sports. However, if anyone can pull off a Slam at 40, it's Williams. She has the discipline, mental toughness, physical strength and the type of game that can thrive into her 40s.
Williams was nine days shy of becoming the oldest woman to win a Slam when she captured the French Open. Martina Navratilova holds the record; she was 33 years, 263 days old when she won Wimbledon in 1990.
Williams could break that record with a win at Wimbledon this year.
"Even if I got to 23 Grand Slams, it would be very hard, you know, with so many wonderful players, especially now. There are so many great new players coming up. Everyone is so young, everyone is so hungry, everyone wants to be the next No. 1."
The age gap between Williams and her opponents will get larger. But the achievement gap between Williams and the rest of the field is so wide that even if other players caught up to her, she could still sneak out a Slam in her 40s.
Last year, she struggled. After a record-setting run in 2013, Williams lost in the fourth round at the Aussie Open, the second round at the French Open and the fourth round at Wimbledon. She still won one Slam, finished the year No. 1 and won the WTA Championships.
Can she do that in her 40s?
Yes, said tennis legend Billie Jean King, who believes Williams' style of play lends itself to a longer career. King spoke with the Telegraph about Williams' longevity, according to Simon Briggs.
“How long can she go on for? It’s down to whether she wants to pay the price or not. I played until 40. She hasn’t had major operations which is what I look at. She is a phenomenal athlete. She gets a lot of free points on her serve, and that’s a major factor."
Navratilova won the 2006 U.S. Open mixed doubles title, with Bob Bryan, a month shy of her 50th birthday. She agrees with King that Williams' serve will allow her to play longer.
In a recent interview with Paul Newman of the Independent, Navratilova said she could see Williams winning multiple Slams three to four years from now. "It’s possible, given the way she plays. It’s fast tennis. She doesn’t have to grind it out: big serves, big returns... If anyone can do it, it will be her, with her technique and her physique and her mental ability and drive.”
Most likely, Williams will lose arm strength with age. However, her serve is about more than power. With precise placement, variety and deception, she can hit aces serving at 75 percent of the pace she uses now. She could make a run at Wimbledon, the Australian Open or U.S. Open, capitalizing on her serve and quick-strike tennis.
After Williams won the 2015 Australian, tennis writer Peter Bodo wrote, "Williams' proficiency at the notch is a powerful antidote to her age, should such even be needed. You can throw the ball up and give it a good ride without having to run or react well into your 40s."
Williams has also benefited from time away from the game due to injury and personal issues. She and Roger Federer were born just a month apart. Yet Federer's decline is noticeable. He last won a Grand Slam in 2012. It was the only Slam he's won after age 29.
Williams has won six Slams since Federer won his last.
Federer has played 1,258 singles matches in his career. Williams, despite turning pro three years before Federer, has played in 837 singles matches. That's 421 matches—four to five seasons' worth—fewer than Federer.
The biggest issue for Williams will be motivation. Even if she could win a Slam at 40, would she want to?
She remains motivated by milestones. Right after winning the 2012 Olympics gold medal, she set her sights on the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. Graf and Court's records will keep her hungry. Chasing records is a powerful motivator.
But if Williams can eclipse those milestones in two years, why would she continue?
Williams could reach Graf's 22 this year. If she does, that puts Court's 24 in play next year. That means she would have to play at least into her 35th year.
Even in 2013, five Slams ago, Court told the Australian she thought Williams could break the all-time record. "I always thought the 24 was gettable, and I had an inkling from the start Serena would do it."
She doesn't have to win a Slam dominantly. Her grass-court and hard-court games are so superior to everyone else's that she could slip through an upset-riddled Slam.
If after 2016 she hasn't caught Graf or Court, chances are she would play another two years. Any milestones left unturned—whether the calendar-year Slam, Court's 24 or Olympic history—could keep Williams playing into her 40s.
She'll probably have to scale back her schedule. Playing a reduced schedule, she would likely drop out of the top 10. This would make it tougher to play her way into tournaments. However, Williams needs to have only one good run at a Slam, six years from now, to pull off the unthinkable.
Doing the unthinkable is how Williams rolls.