Tick tock, tick tock. Serena Williams turns 35 at the end of September and her surprise semi-final defeat at the US Open could well prove to be a seminal moment in her career, writes GARY LEMKE.
Victory at Wimbledon pushed her career Grand Slam singles titles up to 22, joint second on the all-time list with Steffi Graf, and two behind Margaret Court. Now she needs to wait until the Australian Open in January to try go second on her own.
‘I have been having some serious left knee problems. I wasn’t tired. Fatigue had absolutely nothing to do with it. If I was tired I should definitely get into a new career,’ Williams said after a surprise straight-sets defeat to Karolina Pliskova.
‘I wasn’t able to move the way I wanted to move. When you’re injured you’re thinking of other things when you should be just playing and thinking of your shots. My mind was just a little bit everywhere. So I think I wasn’t at 100 per cent, but I also think she played well. She deserved to win today.’
One of the things about Williams is that she never makes an excuse when she loses – although often in saying she has no excuse, it’s in a way that suggests it is.
Consider her reaction after losing in this year’s French Open. ‘I’m not one to ever make excuses and say, “Oh, my adductor was hurting” or whatever,’ although she received treatment during the match for her adductor, so by mentioning it she made the connection.
Or, ‘Yeah, I almost pulled out. I probably should have but I’m such a competitor. I guess the secret is out but I obviously wasn’t hitting the way I normally would hit and wasn’t moving the way I normally would move. It wasn’t the best,’ after losing at the 2014 Australian Open.
At Wimbledon in 2014, she withdrew from a double match after exaggerated movements saw her stumbling around dramatically and then issuing a statement saying ‘a bug just got the best of me’. It led to former women’s great Martina Navratilova to criticise Williams and reckon if she wasn’t feeling well she should not have stepped on to the court. Navratilova was adamant that she didn’t ‘buy’ the bug/virus excuse.
Rarely does Williams ever lose fair and square, although she is masterful in the way she is able to use her words. She always credits her opponent in victory, but often throws in a phrase that cleverly takes the shine off the winner. Perhaps this is just the way sports people at the very highest level operate. To admit defeat would be to admit weakness, and throughout her dominant career Williams has been the one who has been the physical juggernaut.
This year though she has ‘only’ won that one Grand Slam and she suffered an early exit at the Rio Olympics as well, and along with her sister Venus, were also upset by lower opposition in the doubles. Many journalists who travel on the WTA Tour reckon that Williams has been able to continue dominating because of the aura she has in the locker room. Often, a player knows that they are going to be beaten because of Williams’ reputation and her standing at the top of the women’s game for nearly two decades.
Now, with a body that is starting to show some serious wear and tear, the younger players are beginning to believe a lot more. And while that might not mean they are going to be walking over Williams every time they step onto the court, the reality is that Serena is about to turn 35 and the American has now surrendered her hold on the No1 ranking. Had she beaten Pliskova she would have bettered the joint mark of 186 consecutive weeks she currently shares with Graf.
Both she and Graf also have those 22 Grand Slam titles, so it’s quite easy to place them in history, although there are many historians who reckon that Graf’s titles came at a time when there was slightly tougher comparable opposition in the form of Chris Evert, Navratilova, Gabriela Sabbatini and Monica Seles.
Next year Williams will be gunning for that 23rd Grand Slam and the bookies would probably right now, rightly so, make her odds-on to achieve it, and even join or surpass Court on 24. But, it’s not going to get any easier. When Williams won at Wimbledon in July she did so at the age of 34 years 287 days. That made her the oldest-ever women’s Grand Slam winner. Tick tock indeed.