On September 11 2015, the holy grail of tennis agonizingly slipped through Serena Williams’ fingers. In the prestigious Arthur Ashe stadium, where she has enjoyed such success, Williams was defeated 2-6 6-4 6-4 by no other than Roberta Vinci – ranked a humble 43 in the world – ending her vow to complete the first calendar grand slam in 27 years. The result, and what it signified, has cruelly eclipsed the fact that 2015 was still an utterly dominant year for Williams. Now in 2016, she has reached the final of the Australian Open and again her upset has overshadowed what was an imperious fortnight in Melbourne, having not dropped a single set until the final.
Williams’ dominance is certainly still alive and kicking, and her fellow elite seem unable to halt it: to find the last time a top five player defeated Serena Williams in a grand slam, you would have to go all the way back to the 2008 Australian Open. Williams appears only fallible on tennis’ big stages to shock upsets, so we ask – who are the top 10 outsiders to gatecrash the Serena show?
- Heather Watson
That evening on Centre Court last July was a particularly memorable one, with the tight meeting of Watson and Williams transforming the reverential audience of SW19 into a riotous mob. But serving for it at 5-4 in the final set, Watson was crippled with nerves and the world No.1 ruthlessly capitalised. British hearts were broken that July evening, yet Watson could execute an inspired victory over Williams yet. As evident in that match, Watson’s consistency and defensive tenacity unnerved the American, and perhaps on a slower court that could prove much more effective. Watson also doesn’t typically provide the flat groundstrokes that Williams thrives amongst, with a much greater capacity than most players to differentiate pace and angle.
- Bethanie Mattek-Sands
Despite her underwhelming start to 2016 with a trio of first round exits, Mattek-Sands possesses one of the more unorthodox games on tour; it is the sort of style that could easily frustrate a misfiring, impetuous Williams. Indeed, in Flushing Meadows just four months ago, she pushed Williams all the way to three sets. The frailties of Serena’s net play were also persistently unmasked against Kerber in Melbourne – Mattek-Sands is not so fallible further up the court, having emphatically proved her doubles credentials with victory at the Australian Open and Roland Garros last year.
- Roberta Vinci
Who knows how Williams would react to a grand slam rematch with the Italian? Vinci actually has an abject record versus Williams but because of their most recent clash, there would be psychological demons to face for the world #1 – demons that the press would duly oblige to remind her of. But the 2015 US Open runner-up has also put in some impressive displays as of late, suggesting that there is more to come from her on the grand slam singles stage than just a Flushing Meadows flash in the pan.
- Sloane Stephens
Stephens’ premature Australian Open exit has sadly eclipsed her formidable display in Auckland in early January, where she scooped up just her second WTA title. The American certainly has the shot making ability to inspire a shock victory over Serena Williams on the big stage, but Stephens’ powerhouse game hugely plays into her hands. The head to head (5-1 Williams) currently makes uncomfortable reading for Stephens – one of the respective suitors to fill Serena’s role once she bows out – yet she is undeniably a dangerous floater in any grand slam draw.
- Lucie Safarova
Don’t allow Safarova’s wretched 0-9 head to head record against Williams deceive you. Four of those meetings have gone the full distance – including the two’s most recent encounter in the 2015 French Open final where Safarova pushed her opponent to the limit with some quite stunning defensive play. A performance akin to that memorable one back in June could be enough to triumph over a player constantly weighted with the pressure of transcending Steffi Graf’s grand slam record.
- Kristina Mladenovic
Mladenovic’s game combines effective movement and the ability to relentlessly press opponents with hard-hitting off both flanks. At six foot, Mladenovic’s serve is also no pushover. Serena Williams ominously primed to return, and a good foot inside the baseline, is a common sight against lower ranked players. Yet such tactics would surely be culpable to be exposed versus the Frenchwoman. Mladenovic has the capacity to seriously upset the American star, even on the hallowed turf of SW19.
- Daria Gavrilova
The young Australian has had a promising start to 2016 – defeating Kvitova and Mladenovic on the way to the fourth round of the Australian Open. 2015 saw numerous scalps for the 21 year old – notably over Sharapova in Miami – and other fine performances that warranted many to rethink their dubbing of her as just a tenacious retriever. As Kerber displayed in Australia, retrieving is not enough versus Williams – it has to be backed up with incisive counter-punching. The seemingly fearless Gavrilova, particularly on the forehand flank, could deliver just that against the American.
- Madison Keys
Of a similar ilk to Stephens, Keys’ game is arguably a poor match up with Williams; indeed she has been defeated by the 21 time grand slam champion in both of their meetings last year. But age is on the side of Keys and she is certainly a better mover than her American counterpart. Having grown up in the shadows of the Williams sisters’ era, it is seemingly a matter of overcoming a mental stumbling block for Keys – and that is surely ever more conceivable as her presence in the world’s top 30 impressively continues.
2: Johanna Konta
Few can admit to have not being swept up by the Konta success story. But this possibility has more to it than just the superficial results winning streak. Konta’s retrieving has been widely applauded in recent times and could certainly test Serena’s patience. Yet like Gavrilova, Konta has added a more offensive dimension to her game – with her serve particularly excelling in recent times. It would make for a tight affair in the Brit’s current vein of form.
- Belinda Bencic
The 18 year old has taken the tennis world by storm, the height of which has unequivocally been her stunning victory over Williams in Toronto last year. Bencic appeared to be so unperturbed by the big occasion, or her opponent’s nigh-on invincibility at the time. With Williams’ dominance now slightly more contentious, Bencic can surely repeat the same feat over. Fundamentally as well, like many on this list, Belinda Bencic is in the dawn of her career and experience is only going to augment her capabilities on the big stages.