Serena Williams' pending decline is one of the hottest topics going into the 2016 tennis season.
After an award-winning and near-historic 2015 season, a letdown is understandable. But is it inevitable? Not necessarily. With the right focus and strategy, Williams can avoid the seemingly inevitable and solidify her legacy.
Her start to 2016 has been suspect. Williams pulled out of her opener at the Hopman Cup in Perth, Australia, citing a nagging knee injury. She then retired in her match against Jarmila Wolfe. Although her last official match was a semifinals loss at the U.S. Open, Williams has played in a few exhibition matches since then.
But the knee injury raises questions about her health and whether she can continue her dominance on the WTA Tour.
Peter Bodo and Greg Garber of ESPN debated whether Williams' knee problems sidetrack her season. Bodo believes Williams' game is still there, but her health is the real issue: "Could she make another run at the season Slam? Sure, why not? But how she recovers from this early-season setback will tell us a lot."
The consensus appears to be that the end to Williams' reign is near. Tignor stated in his article: "Even the sport’s ultimate doyen of durability, Martina Navratilova, won her last Grand Slam singles title at age 33. As she embarks on her 2016 campaign, Williams will be sailing into uncharted waters."
That's somewhat true. Williams was 33 when she won her last Grand Slam title. However, unlike Navratilova, she has a lot less wear and tear.
Due to injuries, lighter schedules and time off for personal reasons, Williams, at this late stage in her career, has played 801 fewer singles matches than Navratilova did. That's about 10 additional seasons worth of matches.
Evert wrote in a preview for Tennis.com that Williams aggressive style of play makes her more vulnerable to persistent injuries:
Unlike the healthy Djokovic, the physical toll of playing an explosive, athletic style over a 20-year career has led to nagging injuries. The 21-time Grand Slam singles champion will have to be selective about her schedule, playing only the events she needs in order to be prepared for the Slams, because at this point that’s all that matters to her. All that said, I do believe she will win at least two more majors and pass Steffi Graf.
On the contrary, Williams' game—big serve, short points—can aid her longevity. Besides, her biggest challengers—Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova and even Garbine Muguruza—aren't the type that grind it out and prolong points.
Those that do, such as Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki and Angelique Kerber, have yet to demonstrate that they have the mental metal to topple Williams in a Grand Slam.
Evert touches on a huge factor in how Williams can avoid a slump—cherry-pick the schedule. She has to respect the fact that the older she gets the slower she'll heal.
Last November, her coach Patrick Mouratoglou told CNN that Williams has a knee injury similar to the type that has hampered Rafael Nadal.
He said: "At her age, her career could really be in danger if she went too far and got more injured like Rafa [Nadal] did in the past. He kept on playing with the same problem and then it got worse and he had to stop for almost a year."
A year off at the age of 34 might as well be an early retirement. Instead, Williams is correct to pull out of matches or tournaments at the slightest hint of a chronic condition. Taking time off in the past is one of the reasons she and her sister Venus have been able to play at such a high-level this late in their careers.
Their father, Richard Williams, was right to keep them off the grueling juniors circuit as kids. The same thought process applies now—preserve the body today for future rewards.
How Williams performs at the Australian Open will dictate what type of points lead she takes into the spring. If she defends her title, Williams may want to skip Indian Wells or Miami and play in just one of the red-clay French Open tuneups.
At some point, she may have to forget about chasing points to retain the No. 1 ranking. Her lead is so huge that even if she relinquishes No. 1, it's unlikely she'll slip out of the top three.
Williams also has to find a way to put records and milestones in the back of her mind. There is no way can she pretend the records aren't there. However, she can avoid getting consumed by the hype.
According to her mother, Oracene Price, the pressure got to Williams at the U.S. Open.
Price told ESPN's Jane McManus that she could see the pressure mounting on Williams:
"Every day things can be different...Just little things can put seeds of doubt in your mind and then you think too much, don't do what you should do, when you're out competing."
Of course, winning another Slam is no given. Roger Federer has been chasing another major title since Wimbledon 2012. But Federer is not No. 1 on the ATP World Tour, and he is not considered the best player on tour when healthy. Williams is.
Because she took off the rest of the season following her U.S. Open loss, Williams can easily accumulate points in the fall during the Asian swing.
Then again, if she's won two or three Grand Slams going into the fall that means she's eclipsed Steffi Graf and perhaps tied Margaret Court. In that case, Williams could shut down her season early again. But this time it would be to celebrate.