Serena Williams turns 35 in September, which is hard enough to believe by itself. But part of her birthday celebration could include capturing the modern record for major championships if she wins the U.S. Open earlier that month.
Williams can tie Steffi Graf's mark (22 majors) with a victory at Wimbledon, which begins Monday. Last year, when she left the All England Lawn Tennis Club and Croquet Club as champion for the sixth time, she could have pulled even with Graf and pulled off a calendar grand slam at the U.S. Open. It seemed like a fait accompli until a shocking upset knocked her out in the semifinals.
She hasn’t been the same since.
Now there are thoughts that Williams is succumbing to Father Time and Mother Age, the vaunted tag team that’s undefeated against top athletes and everyone else. The 0-for-3 streak in majors—she also lost in the French Open final this month and the Australian Open final in January—has exposed that she isn’t invincible and has encouraged her competitors. Is her tenure as the world’s No. 1 player coming to an end?
“I think it’s just a matter of time, honestly,” Garbiñe Muguruza told reporters prior to beating Williams in the French. “There is a lot of players out there fighting for it, and Serena eventually is going to, you know, go a little bit down because she’s, like, forever there. So we’ll see.”
We haven’t seen Williams win lately, but we’ve seen plenty of her otherwise.
A just-released documentary, Serena: The Other Side of Greatness, gives us a peek at her private life, including the long struggle to love her body. She’s the July cover story for Glamour, with an interview by Melissa Harris-Perry. The same magazine gave her an opportunity to represent women and vent her frustration in response to stupid stuff men say.
With so many other interests, including a popular fashion line on HSN, Williams has never been as single-minded and intently focused on tennis as most stars. There have been questions throughout her career as to whether she’s sufficiently dedicated and motivated, which should be laughable, considering her success. Williams is the oldest woman to be ranked No. 1 and has never taken kindly to losing.
“I’m going to take a moment to be super candid and super honest,” she posted in a video this month. “After Paris … I was really pissed. I have to admit. I thought I could’ve played better, I thought I could’ve competed better, I thought I could’ve really done everything five times better.
“I was so pissed that I actually abandoned my rackets in France after maybe a few smashes of the racket bag. I felt like if I was going to play that awful and that crappy, that maybe I don’t need rackets.”
She couldn’t pick a much better place to get well. Only Graf, with seven, has more women’s titles at Wimbledon. Williams has always been extremely comfortable on the grass courts there, winning four of the last seven tournaments.
Determined to regain the form that led her to three grand-slam titles last year, Williams spent a week working out with trainer Mackie Shilstone before arriving in London. Shilstone is credited with turning Williams into one of the world’s fittest athletes after a terrible slump in 2008.
“I think with Serena, everything is 55 percent mental and 45 percent physical,” Shilstone told The Guardian last fall. “She has this innate ability to regroup and refocus in the heat of the battle.”
The pendulum will swing for her eventually, as it does for everyone. Can she make history before the calendar flips another click on her odometer? Or has the mileage caught up and left her with little in the tank?
“If anything can encourage her to believe in herself again, get her playing the right way at the right time, it should be the grass of Wimbledon,” tennis analyst Mary Carillo told ESPN. “Shouldn’t it all come back together for her there?”
The answer could have a big impact on how Williams celebrates at her 35th-birthday party.