Serena Williams, her kingdom for a record

Dec 5, 2021, 6:00:00 AM | by Regis Delanoe

Serena Williams
With her endless career and her 23 Grand Slam titles, Serena Williams is already a tennis legend, perhaps the greatest female athlete of all time. Now 40, she is obsessed with one – last – thing: beating Margaret Court and her record 24 crowns, a quest which is turning into a pipe dream as retirement is getting closer. Let’s review her last decade, ten years in which she got closer to the Holy Grail without reaching it.

2011: the end of an era, the beginning of another

We Are Tennis was launched in early 2011. Serena – who had won 13 Grand Slam tournaments back then – and Venus Williams saw two of their biggest rivals retire: first, Belgian player Justine Henin, soon followed by her fellow countrywoman, Kim Clijsters. “Women’s tennis is going through a transitional period,” wrote Eli Weinstein on 21st January. “Even though they still have their word to say, the Williams sisters clearly are closer to the end than the start of their careers.” Yet, after a surgery due to a pulmonary embolism, the youngest sister concluded the year with a promising US Open campaign, which ended on a final lost to Samantha Stosur. “Serena has the potential and the qualities to become the best player of all time,” said Monica Seles then. “She has a great serve, a good return, her moves are fantastic, and she is incredibly powerful. No player compares to her.”


2012: Mouratoglou, year one

“Is Serena Williams the best tennis player of all time? It is hard to tell…” These were Rico Rizzitelli’s words in a We Are Tennis article, in October 2012. “She is the most powerful, that’s for sure, and definitely one of the best athletes all sports included. But when it comes to basic skills, it is less obvious. There are doubts regarding her sometimes-hesitant legwork and her lack of patience on clay.” Serena lost to Virginie Razzano in the French Open first round indeed, but she made it up in Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows, where she won two other Grand Slam tournaments. But 2012 especially marked the start of her collaboration with French coach Patrick Mouratoglou.


2013: back to the top

Serena Williams is twelve years older than Sloane Stephens. In Melbourne, 20-year-old Stephens made Williams look older by beating her in the Australian Open quarterfinals. But it takes more for Serena Williams to doubt, and she won her first French Open title since 2002. It was a perfect tournament ended on a final masterpiece against Maria Sharapova, which she won on a 123-mph ace. A superpowered serve, a brand-new legwork: Serena’s tennis was seen as “almost perfect” by Daily Telegraph journalist Simon Briggs. She closed her season on a 17th crown in the US Open, where she beat Victoria Azarenka. She was world No 1 again, and she would remain there for 186 weeks in a row, until September 2016.


2014: the peak of an athlete

Though she lost in the 4th round in Melbourne (to Ana Ivanovic), in the 2nd round in Paris (to Garbine Muguruza), and in the 3rd round in London (to a certain Alizé Cornet!), infallible Serena Williams caught up in the US Open and kept the crown she conquered one year before by beating Caroline Wozniacki. In the early years of the decade, many thought the Danish player could become Serena’s rival. But neither Wozniacki nor the other potential rivals then (Ivanovic, Azarenka, Radwanska, Sharapova, Li Na, Petkovic…) managed to oust Serena Williams – who was then voted the most influent athlete in the world – on the long term.


2015: so close to a Grand Slam

Serena Williams was only two matches away from becoming the first female Grand Slam winner since Steffi Graf in 1988. But she couldn’t do better than a “four in a row” split over two seasons – just like in 2002 and 2003 – with her 2014 US Open title and her 2015 Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon victories. A third-time reigning champion, she was the absolute favourite in Flushing Meadows but surprisingly lost to Roberta Vinci, who was not even seeded, in the semis. Thanks to the variety of her strokes, the Italian player cleverly avoided the usual trial of strength imposed by Serena, who crumbled due to emotion and tension.


2016: the machine got jammed…

2016 was a turning point for Serena Williams, who started to lose finals, which had not happened for a long time. After eight wins in as many Grand Slam finals in a row, she lost two consecutive finals, in Melbourne (to Kerber) and in the French Open (to Muguruza). The machine was surreptitiously getting jammed… However, in Wimbledon, she took revenge on Angelique Kerber to win her 22nd major tournament and equal Steffi Graf’s record. But it was the young German player who ended 2016 as world No 1.


2017: one last dance

Was 2017 a crucial year for Serena Williams? Definitely. First of all, on-court, she won her 23rd Grand Slam title in Melbourne and became the most titled player of the Open era, surpassing Graf, Navratilova, and Ever, among others. She only has one women’s tennis record left to beat: Margaret Court’s 24 major titles won between 1960 and 1973, the year the WTA circuit was created. But 2017 was also the year Serena Williams became a mother when she gave birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian. She also married Alexis Ohanian that year. 2017 marked the start of a new life.


2018: two missed opportunities

Now a mother, married and one of the richest women on Earth, Serena Williams was still hungry for victories. “I think many things are down to what she wants,” said Steffi Graf in November 2017. “From what I heard, she seems to be back to tennis. You know, over her career, she has proved that as soon as she has something in mind, she gives her everything to reach her goal.” And Queen Serena did come back to competition ready for a fight. But both in Wimbledon and the US Open, she lost in the final, respectively to Angelique Kerber – again – and newcomer Naomi Osaka, who became almost as popular in the USA as the Williams sisters twenty years before…


2019: again…

In 2019, Serena Williams lost another two finals, again in Wimbledon and the US Open. Quite a frustrating season… That time, she lost to Simona Halep and Bianca Andreescu, who then became the first millennial to win a major tournament. The Canadian player was not even born when the youngest Williams, with a juvenile smile on her face and her white plaits, beat Martina Hingis and won the New York crowd’s heart in 1999. Is the wheel of fortunes turning once and for all? Since 2016, Serena Williams has played 8 finals but has won only two… Moreover, she lost five out of six in two sets.


2020: the WTA tornado

Serena’s opponents are no longer afraid. The new generation, embodied by wonderkid Cori Gauff, assertively shakes the WTA circuit. Veteran Serena seems to be drowning in an ocean of uncertainty. Still, she managed to make it to the US Open semis but lost to another old hand of the circuit, Belarusian player Azarenka. “We all want (Serena) to win another title, but it won’t be easy because there are many great players out there,” said recently retired Caroline Wozniacki. “Even if she does not win, she has already proved she is the best female tennis player of all time. We are lucky we saw her play.” Her words sound like a tribute to an everlasting career.


2021: 40… what now?

Serena Williams turned 40 on 26th September 2021. She has not played a single match since she gave up in Wimbledon’s first round. She played 18 matches this season (59 in 2015, her last full season to date), and only reached the semis in Melbourne and the French Open fourth round. Will she ever tie Maragret Court’s record? Nothing is less certain. Is it so important, in the end? Patrick Mouratoglou, who knows her better than anyone else, recently gave an indirect answer in an interview: “Margaret Court played in other times when most players would not even go to Australia. Tennis was amateur, and only 16 players were in the draws. With all due respect to Margaret Court, it was nothing like today’s tennis. Yes, it would be better if Serena beat her record but, even if she does not, she will remain the best female player of all time.” Chris Evert agreed last summer: “I think she has already left her heritage. She may not win another Grand Slam title, but it does not matter. She remains the greatest.