Serena Williams is a phenomenal champion, the greatest gift to the women's game. A year after giving birth to her daughter Olympia, she made two grand slam finals, the 2018 Wimbledon and U.S. Open championships. The 37-year-old American holds the record in the Open Era of 23 grand slams, having surpassed Steffi Graf's previous record of 22 when Serena beat her older sister, Venus, at the 2017 Australian Open (while pregnant!).
There is no doubt that the tennis legend will retain the zenith position in tennis history. She holds three more grand slam titles than Roger Federer. But with her latest early exit at the French Open, where she lost to compatriot Sofia Kenin in straight sets, 6-2, 7-5, is she risking her reputation by chasing an elusive 24th slam to tie Margaret Court's overall record? It's been a difficult year for the 23-time slam champion, since powering through to the quarterfinals at the Australian Open.
She had four match points against Karolína Plíšková there. In the past, a steely-minded Serena would never have hesitated to close out the win, but this time she allowed Plíšková back in the match and was ousted in her first tournament since losing to Naomi Osaka at the 2018 U.S.
Open. What's followed has been a string of defeats, including retiring from her match against Garbiñe Muguruza at Indian Wells, and pulling out of the very few matches she committed to in Miami and Rome. It's been difficult for Serena to recover from a chronic knee injury that has continued to plague her.
Illness has also wreaked havoc on her already light schedule. Her coach Patrick Mouratoglou said that the 37-year-old wasn't fully fit at Roland Garros and he admitted that he was unsurprised by her poor showing. "First of all, she knew she was not coming to this tournament being prepared the way she wanted to because of the big injury in Miami,” Mouratoglou said to Eurosport.
“For many weeks she was not able to do anything, because she had to recover, so the time she had to prepare was much too short. “She lost the match because her opponent played a great match – she was consistent from the first ball to the last one and she didn’t miss much, was aggressive and played the perfect match.
“Honestly, if Serena didn’t lose this one she would probably lose next round, or when the top players would have been the other side of the court. Of course, it’s a disappointment, but in a way it had to happen – she was just not ready”.
The error-prone form Serena Williams has shown in the last two years has allowed the generation of WTA talents such as Angelique Kerber, Garbiñe Muguruza, Naomi Osaka, and Karolína Plíšková to absorb her powerful striking ability.
Serena's serve is still unparalleled, but now a new crop of young players are challenging the legend, further complicating her quest to equal slam number 24. On the other hand, the French Open is Serena's least successful slam.
She holds only three trophies there, with six at Flushing Meadows, and seven at the Australian Open and Wimbledon each. Her greatest chance may lay ahead of her this year at those two slams. The American usually skips the warm-up events leading up to Wimbledon but has hinted that she will perhaps seek a wildcard(s) to them this time.
"I'm definitely feeling super short on matches and just getting in the swing of things," Williams said during her news conference, according to Eurosport. "I have some time on my hands so maybe I'll jump in and get a wildcard at one of these grasscourt events and see what happens."
Perhaps her fitness level will peak building up to another run at the U.S. Open, where she's had luck and achieved so much success. The legends of any sport can produce a last magical run to put a final cap in their illustrious storybook fairytales.
Pete Sampras was able to collect a last U.S. Open title right before he announced his retirement. Same with Steffi Graf at the French Open. Tiger Woods just won The Masters championship after an 11-year majors drought. The Patriots' Tom Brady won this year's Super Bowl after a disappointing defeat the previous year.
But for everyone one of those, there's an Andre Agassi, who retired years after he won his last slam. Ivan Lendl never did achieve a Wimbledon trophy despite focussing exclusively on that metric in the later part of his career.
The great Martina Navratilova got close to winning an incredible 10th Wimbledon singles title at the age of 37 but still lost to Conchita Martinez.