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Will Serena Williams Get Another Real Rival Before She Retires?

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett@@merlisaFeatured ColumnistMay 25, 2016

Serena Williams serves during her opening match at the 2016 French Open.
Serena Williams serves during her opening match at the 2016 French Open.PHILIPPE LOPEZ/Getty Images

Serena Williams leads a lonely, rival-less life atop the WTA Tour.

She took up residence at No. 1 more than three years ago. Many players insist they wish to reside there too. Yet, for one reason or another, they never arrive.

Williams has been playing professional tennis for 20 years. However, it's been nearly eight years since she had a real rival. 

Will she get another one before she retires?

Williams coasted to a 6-2, 6-0 victory over Magdalena Rybarikova in the first round of the 2016 French Open. Meanwhile, would-be rivals Angelique Kerber and Victoria Azarenka lost. Kerber fell to KiKi Bertens, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3. Down 6-3, 6-7 (6), 4-0 to Karin Knapp, Azarenka retired due to a right knee injury. 

Now only No. 2 seed Agnieszka Radwanska has a chance to leave Roland Garros with the No. 1 ranking. But with an 0-10 record against Williams, Radwanska can hardly be called a rival.  

Who can? Nobody right now. Williams has many contenders but no real rivals in these later years of her career. 

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Even when Williams takes a hiatus from the tour and leaves the door open, opponents who claim No. 1 is their desired destination take a detour.

Kerber and Azarenka were supposed to challenge Williams in the race for No. 1. Instead, they joined the long list of challengers who failed to dethrone Williams.

If Williams defends her title, she's guaranteed to reach 172 consecutive weeks at No. 1. That's second only to Steffi Graf (186). 

Williams dominates the top players. She is 5-2 against Kerber, 17-4 against Azarenka, 3-1 against Garbine Muguruza and 7-1 against Simona Halep. None of them are real rivals. 

Earlier in her career, Williams had rivalries with her sister Venus, Justine Henin, Martina Hingis, Elena Dementieva, Jennifer Capriati and, to some extent, Kim Clijsters. Although Williams enjoys winning records against all those women, the rivalries weren't nearly as lopsided. 

You can't blame Williams for the absence of a real rival. Henin, Hingis, Dementieva and Clijsters are her contemporaries. Hingis is one year older. Dementieva, 34, is a month younger. Clijsters (32) and Henin (33) are also younger. 

In a debate about the lack of rivalries for Williams, Adena Andrews wrote for ESPNW:

Basing Serena's case for being the greatest of all time on the caliber of her peers is like judging a high-performance car on a go-kart track. Will you say the car wasn't fast enough because the other vehicles around it moved at a snail's pace? I think not. That's because greatness is greatness no matter the mediocrity that surrounds it. ... It's not like Serena plays against a bunch of scrubs. Her field consists of world-class tennis players who've studied the game their entire lives. Is it Serena's fault their skills are lacking in comparison with hers? Is it her fault they can't get on her level? 

Recently, younger challengers such as Muguruza, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys have proved they have the firepower to compete against Williams. However, they lack mental toughness, consistency and variety in their games.

Muguruza upset Williams in the second round of the 2014 French Open. They met twice last year, including the Wimbledon final. Williams has dropped just one set in her three wins over Muguruza. This could become a rivalry. But it's not right now. 

Keys and Williams have had a couple of memorable matches. Still, Keys is 0-3 against Williams.

When Stephens upset Williams at the 2013 Australian Open, the post-match fallout had the makings of a rivalry. Stephens bad-mouthed Williams in an ESPN The Magazine interview (via Tennis.com). Her comments made for great drama, especially during rematches. However, Stephens is 1-5 against Williams.

Not much of a rivalry. 

If close matches in big moments count, Azarenka could be considered a rival.

She's played Williams 21 times. They've met in Grand Slam finals. They've both been No. 1 and have even shared a hitting partner. Yet you can't ignore her 4-17 record against Williams. Does that disqualify Azarenka as a real rival? 

Serena Williams hugs sister Venus after their match at the 2015 U.S. Open.
Serena Williams hugs sister Venus after their match at the 2015 U.S. Open.Julio Cortez/Associated Press

It's certainly not Maria Sharapova. Last year, when Williams beat Sharapova in the semifinals at Wimbledon, the Washington Post's Sally Jenkins dismissed that so-called rivalry. 

"Don't fall for it anymore," Jenkins wrote. "Serena Williams does not have a rival. She has no peer or equal. No one is keeping company with her. Whatever this thing is between her and Maria Sharapova, call it a frost or petty feud; it is in no way competitive."

Perhaps time has run out on the rest of the field. Even if Keys and Muguruza make a run on Grand Slams, Williams will probably be at or near her retirement before they do. Azarenka is injured, and Kerber is unpredictable. 

The No. 1 ranking can be taken. Plenty of non-Slam winners have been No. 1. Williams can continue to pursue records and Slam titles, but a real rival will remain in her past. 

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