Having amassed 23 Grand Slam singles titles, four Olympic gold medals and $88.2 million in winnings over a 23-year pro career, Serena Williams has precious little more to achieve on a tennis court.
But the 2019 Australian Open, which heralds the tennis season’s start in earnest as the first of the four majors, presents one more benchmark. With a 24th Grand Slam championship, the 37-year-old Williams would tie Margaret Court’s record of major titles.
For the countless sports fans unfamiliar with Court’s dominance of a gentler era of the game in the late 1950s to early 1970s, equaling Court’s mark would represent a needless asterisk on Williams’s brilliant resume — a resume that needs no padding to make the case that she is the best player the women’s game has seen.
But from a competitor’s perspective, that’s hardly the point.
“Champions are greedy in the sense of they want to keep racking up the Grand Slams,” says Hall of Famer Chris Evert, who, like Williams, was a dominant force in her era before retiring with 18 major titles. “She is in a position where she can break some records in the tennis world.”
When last seen at a major, Williams was in full-blown meltdown mode in the final of the 2018 U.S. Open, which was won by Japan’s Naomi Osaka, who held her poise and nerve down the stretch of a second set that teetered on brink of chaos. It was not Williams’s first unhinged display on Arthur Ashe Stadium but her third; in this case, she called the chair umpire a “thief” and a “liar” amid a rapidly escalating series of penalties that incited the crowd and undermined her own cause.
Asked during a recent conference call with reporters if she felt the episode had tarnished Williams’s reputation, Evert pushed back, arguing that Williams’s career record of dominance would ultimately overshadow any episode when she “lost her cool” on court.
The 2019 Australian Open, which gets underway Monday in Melbourne (Sunday in the United States), offers Williams a chance at a reset. It is her first tournament since her runner-up finish in New York in September.
Based on her performance in singles and doubles at the recent Hopman Cup, Williams launches into the Australian Open leaner, quicker and more fit than she was last September, when she reached the finals of a second consecutive major within a year of a difficult childbirth.
If Williams were to win her eighth Australian Open, it would represent a powerful bookend to her triumph in 2017, when she won the tournament while two months pregnant.
Evert, for one, likes Williams’s chances despite her 16th seed, noting the tournament’s quick hard courts, which will accentuate her serve (her most lethal weapon), as well as her mental freshness and improved fitness.
“She seems fitter than last year,” said Evert, now an ESPN tennis analyst. “The scary thought looking at the women, they have to be thinking at this point, ‘Gosh, she was 60, 70 percent last year reaching two finals, and now she seems fitter, leaner, she’s moving better.’”
For reigning Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki, Williams’s transformation is cause for respect and inspiration. And she paid tribute to her friend and foe at the tournament’s draw ceremony last week, saying: “Serena is the greatest player to have played the game. Her experiences have been a learning experience for me. It’s been fun, though, as well. She has a baby now! It’s amazing being back on tour so soon.”
Unlike six-time and defending Australian Open champion Roger Federer, who, at 37, is seeking to extend his men’s record 20 major titles, Williams has no well-defined cohort of rivals to prepare for. Any one of a half-dozen women, possibly more, could contend for the Australian Open title.
Eight different women have won the last eight majors, as if they’d made a pact to take turns claiming the game’s greatest spoils. With Williams on maternity leave after her 2017 Australian Open triumph, the season’s subsequent majors were won by Jelena Ostapenko (French), Garbine Muguruza (Wimbledon) and Sloane Stephens (U.S. Open).
Wozniacki opened 2018 by winning the Australian, her first major title. Simona Halep earned her first major at the French Open. Angelique Kerber denied Williams in the Wimbledon final; Osaka followed suit at the U.S. Open.
To this mix, former Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe adds a ninth name — Aryna Sabalenka, a hard-hitting 20-year-old from Belarus — as his pick for the 2019 Australian title.
“I’m so impressed with her game, number one; her physicality; her movement for her size [6 feet] is excellent,” said McEnroe, also an ESPN analyst. “She has a swagger about her. A confidence.”
The narrative on the men’s side will likely revolve around the two players who claimed 12 of the last 14 majors — Federer and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic.
No doubt, the tournament’s early-going will be rich in nostalgia and respect, given the possibility that this Australian Open will be the last major in which all of the men’s “Big Four” take part. For nearly two decades, Federer, Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray have dominated, relegating a generation of contenders to scraps at the majors. But time, age and injury are taking their inevitable toll, as a free-hitting and physically imposing next crop of challengers emerges.
Murray, 31, announced during a tearful news conference this past week that he’ll retire this season. The chronic pain and physical limitations of his surgically repaired right hip won’t get him far at the Australian and may prevent the most fitting farewell — Murray’s retirement at Wimbledon, where he snapped a 77-year drought of British male champions at the All England Cup with the first of his two victories in 2013.
Nadal, 32, the 2009 Australian Open champion, enters the Australian nursing a thigh strain. Much like Murray, Nadal is battling the toll of the punishing style of play that’s at the core of his game.