Will Serena Williams Return As the No. 1 Player in 2017?

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2017

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JANUARY 04: Serena Williams of the USA celebrates a point during her singles match against Madison Brengle of the USA  on day three of the ASB Classic on January 4, 2017 in Auckland, New Zealand.  (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Phil Walter/Getty Images

Serena Williams lost a second-round match at the ASB Classic on Wednesday, but it will only awaken the American superstar to find her form before the Australian Open draw on Jan. 13.

After not playing competitive tour tennis since the U.S. Open and all but relinquishing her No. 1 ranking to Angelique Kerber, Serena is putting on her game face.

"This is almost not a great opportunity to assess your game, to be honest," Serena said to the AAP (via ESPN), rankled by her 88 unforced errors and the windy conditions. "You really have to go back to the drawing board, because it's quite frankly unprofessional."

The biggest takeaway is Serena's fire. She has no intention of coasting along in 2017 while emerging rivals hold up Grand Slam trophies. The majors are her tournaments to win or lose, health permitting, and she knows it.

After four months of rest and healing from an injury-plagued 2016 that still saw her come away with the Wimbledon title and the No. 2 ranking, Serena will be restless and willing to win a record-breaking 23rd career major.

US player Serena Williams returns to Germany's Angelique Kerber during the women's singles final on the thirteenth day of the 2016 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Lawn Tennis Club in Wimbledon, southwest London, on July 9, 2016. / AFP / JUSTIN
JUSTIN TALLIS/Getty Images

    

More than 22 but 30?

Serena produced one of the most dominating stretches in history, winning nine majors from Wimbledon 2012 through Wimbledon 2016 and spending 186 consecutive weeks at No. 1. She slowed down when Kerber won the Australian and U.S. Opens. She also had to pace herself through only 44 matches because of persistent knee and shoulder inflammations.

But coach Patrick Mouratoglou said that Serena is ready for another Grand Slam streak. "I know people are going to be very much focused on the 23rd [Grand Slam]," he told CNN's Motez Bishara and Ravi Ubha in September. "I'm more focused on the 30th. Why not set up a record that will never be beaten in history? I think she can do it."

With any other tennis player on tour, this would be a far-fetched projection. But Serena, even at 35, has legendary power, intimidating toughness and a fierce competitive desire. She's always aimed above massive expectations, and there's a chance she can keep ticking off the majors.

She's Wonder Woman in flamboyant tennis attire with all the abilities to vanquish any would-be rival as long as she can run hard and blast away. Give her time to train, keep her healthy and she will take care of winning titles.

Serena Williams of the US gestures as she speaks after Germany's Angelique Kerber's victory in their women's singles final match on day thirteen of the 2016 Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 30, 2016. AFP PHOTO / PAUL CROCK -- IMAG
PAUL CROCK/Getty Images

    

Pace or Race

Although Serena trails Kerber by 2,030 points, she's not worried about the German's career year. Even if Kerber stays near the top, she's not the standard Serena is chasing. The 28-year-old faded a bit after the U.S. Open, and she was upset at the quarterfinals of the Brisbane International.

Nor is Serena overly concerned about rising young stars like Karolina Pliskova and Garbine Muguruza, players who pack a lot of power and athleticism but who need a lot more growth and consistency to achieve excellence. There are plenty of formidable opponents in the top 20, many who will be fine future champions, but Wonder Woman reigns supreme as long as she can fight with all her arsenal.

All of which makes for an interesting dilemma. Will Serena chase down the No. 1 ranking or will she pace herself to peak for the majors and let her big-match victories lead the way?

In 2016, Serena played in eight important tournaments. Kerber played 24, including Fed Cup competitions. Williams could add a lot more to her schedule and likely score more points but at what cost? Would it wear her down as she attempts to win more major hardware? What is the optimum balance to stay sharp and healthy?

Mouratoglou noted in the aforementioned CNN interview that Serena's top priority will be winning majors: "We decided to let go [of] that No. 1 spot for the moment. Maybe she'll get it back, but we shouldn't focus on that—we focus on the Grand Slams."

Meanwhile, the 35-year-old will be taking things day by day, shaking off the rust, renewing competitive fitness and laying the foundation for a monster 2017. She's got a history of coming back to win the biggest matches when outsiders' doubts swirl into foggy prognostications.

The wins will come, and she will prepare for nothing less than winning her seventh Australian Open title. It would be the first step to restoring her dominance, showing her aspiring rivals that the only thing stronger than fear is Serena Williams.

Related

    Shenzhen Open: Andy Murray through to second round after Zhang Zhizhen retires

    Tennis logo
    Tennis

    Shenzhen Open: Andy Murray through to second round after Zhang Zhizhen retires

    BBC Sport
    via BBC Sport

    Chris Evert Says Serena Williams Got Screwed By Bad U.S. Open Rule

    Tennis logo
    Tennis

    Chris Evert Says Serena Williams Got Screwed By Bad U.S. Open Rule

    TMZ
    via TMZ

    Andy Murray alludes to following Roger Federer's lead and cutting down on 2019 schedule

    Tennis logo
    Tennis

    Andy Murray alludes to following Roger Federer's lead and cutting down on 2019 schedule

    Kevin Skiver
    via CBSSports.com

    Smash! Andy Murray drops commemorative plate in Shenzhen

    Tennis logo
    Tennis

    Smash! Andy Murray drops commemorative plate in Shenzhen

    BBC News
    via BBC News