Does Serena Williams Want a 24th Grand Slam Too Much?

Serena Williams US Open Final

It is beyond doubt that Serena Williams is one of the greatest tennis players of all time. Her legacy and her achievements are such that she could play on for a decade without winning another match and they would remain untarnished. But it is also true that the American, a winner of 23 Major titles in singles alone, does not appear to be quite the same player as she was before she departed for maternity leave in 2017.

That is not to say that she is no longer capable of hitting the heights that took her to her multitude of Grand Slam titles between 1999 and 2017 and made her the almost unchallenged ruler of the women’s game during the early years of the 21st century. Indeed, her 6-3 6-1 demolition of fifth seed Elina Svitolina, who had been enjoying a terrific tournament, in the US Open semifinals just days ago clearly attests to the reality that she remains a force to be reckoned with.

But it is equally impossible to overlook the fact that, whilst she had won 23 of the 29 Grand Slam finals she contested up to the 2017 Australian Open final, since returning to the WTA tour in 2018, she has lost all four Grand Slam finals she has contested in straight-sets. Of course, it is in many ways a testament to her enduring greatness that Williams has managed to reach four title-matches at the sport’s most prestigious events in little over a season-and-a-half.
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In fact, she made her first appearance in a Major final since the birth of her daughter having played just 14 matches as a mother. That is a feat made all the more impressive by the potentially life-threatening complications she had to contend with during her pregnancy and the battle to stay fit consistently since her return to the tour. Nor indeed should the challenge of balancing pregnancy and motherhood with a career as a top-level athlete be forgotten.

But Williams is such a great champion in part because of the exacting standards she imposes on herself and she has unquestionably fallen short of those standards in her last four Major finals. Of course, she has faced excellent opposition performing at the top of the game in every one of those matches. It is also arguable that the standard of tennis on the WTA tour is higher than it was for much of Williams’ career and that therefore expectations that she would continue to dominate so completely were unrealistic.

Nonetheless, it is hard to believe that Williams playing at her very best would not have won at least one of those matches or, at the very least, one set. Instead, she has been on the receiving end of some one-sided beatdowns, the most damaging of which was surely her 2-6 2-6 loss to Simona Halep in the Wimbledon final in July, which lasted under an hour. It was a match in which Williams looked nervous and entirely short of ideas, despite it being her 11th Wimbledon final and Halep’s first.

But it was her defeat to Angelique Kerber at Wimbledon in 2018, in what was her first appearance in a Major final since her return from maternity leave, that set the tone for her struggles at the sharp end of Grand Slams. Williams had entered that match riding high after what had looked like an excellent campaign at the All England Club. Indeed, the American had dropped just one set in her previous six matches ahead of the final.
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However, she had also faced no top-tier opposition during that run and it was clear from the opening exchanges with Kerber that Williams was not ready for such elite opposition. The German broke in the opening game of the match and did not look back, repeatedly outmanoeuvring Williams on her way to a comprehensive 6-3 6-3 victory, avenging the straight-sets loss she suffered at Williams hands in the 2016 final in SW19 in the process.

It was a similar story in her contentious loss to Naomi Osaka in New York last season. Williams was certainly unlucky to receive a penalty for on-court coaching, but she was already very much on the ropes at that point. And her subsequent loss of composure, though perhaps understandable considering the circumstances, seemed a far cry from the all-conquering Williams of old. Nor, ultimately, can there be any argument that Osaka did not play, by some distance, the better tennis in that match.
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Her performance in the final in New York improved this year when she took on first-time finalist Bianca Andreescu. Her determined rearguard action, which saw her rally from 3-6 1-5 down to five games apiece in the second set was particularly impressive. But just when she had her opponent on the ropes and the crowd firmly believing in her chances once again, Williams faltered. After Andreescu regained some momentum with a hard-won hold of serve to move up 6-5, Williams responded with a dreadful service game of her own to lose the match.

Once again, Williams, who had been the favourite going into the match, had not looked like the player with 23 Grand Slam titles. Rather, she seemed overawed the occasion and it is surely telling that she was only able to find her best tennis when she was so far behind in the match that she had little left to lose. When she got back to level pegging, the combination of power and accuracy that had caused Andreescu such problems, deserted her.

But what is causing these drops in performance in Major finals? The answer appears to be that Williams wants to win too much. Although winning on the biggest stage was once a matter of course for Williams, she will head into next year’s Australian Open without having won a Grand Slam for two years and still one title short of Court’s record haul of 24 Majors. Both of those facts seem to be weighing her down when she steps on court in Grand Slam finals.

And concerningly, it is a morass that Williams is in danger of sinking inexorably further into. The more she wants to once again get her hands on one of the sport’s most iconic trophies and equal Court’s record, the harder it will be to do just that. Particularly as the fast rising young stars, including Osaka and Andreescu, as well as Amanda Anisimova, Cori Gauff and Iga Swiatek, become more regular contenders for Grand Slam titles.

It is still far too early to rule Williams out. Though she may have struggled for consistency, she has demonstrated more than once of late just how devastating she can be. And though she was typically gracious in defeat, her will to win clearly remains as indomitable as ever. But in order to triumph once more at one of the four Majors, she may just need to temper that relentless pursuit of victory with a greater sense of calm in the decisive moments. Otherwise, Court’s record may just remain forever out of reach.

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