By Matt Roberts
Serena Williams hasn’t played a competitive tennis match since 11th September last year. It’s a haunting date that’s synonymous with tragedy in New York and, last summer in the Big Apple, Williams faced a tragedy as big as they come in tennis. She crashed out of the US Open in the semi-finals, losing to journeywoman Roberta Vinci and having her historic major run halted at 26 consecutive wins in one season, two short of the 28 required to win the still-elusive calendar Grand Slam.
It was a shocking occasion and Serena opted out of playing the remainder of the season, choosing instead to heal her heart and health.
Since then, the Sports Illustrated Person of the Year for 2015 has made a handful of brief appearances on a tennis court – notably at the International Premier Tennis League in December and at the Hopman Cup in Perth last week. On both occasions, she looked alarmingly rusty. But perhaps more worryingly for her legion of fans, she was hampered by knee trouble. We’ve known Serena’s knees have been problematic for some time, but over the past few months the bleak picture has become much clearer.
Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena’s coach since June 2012, said last November that “a big part” of the cartilage in Serena’s knees had gone and last week he confirmed that the American receives a special treatment on her knees “once every six months.”
Serena is the bookies’ favourite for the fast-approaching Australian Open – not because of any recent form, but because history and her greatness dictates as much. With 21 major singles titles, she remains one shy of Steffi Graf’s Open Era record. While that’s still the case, Serena will be motivated. And a motivated Serena is bad news for any women hoping to bag themselves a grand slam.
Does Serena always receive the recognition she deserves? In athletics, Usain Bolt’s dominance over his sprinting peers and the margin of his victories is always marked as a tick against his name. For Serena, however, her indomitability is often scoffed at. When she wins easily, in the eyes of many it’s because her opponents are not credible rivals.
The difference, of course, is that we can statistically measure Bolt’s superiority by timing him, and his competitors don’t directly affect his world records. With tennis, it’s understandably harder. But what more can Serena do? She has one of the greatest tennis portfolios in history.
If Serena can summon her peak form in Melbourne, she’ll win the title, probably without dropping a single set. But after such an extended lay-off, few are predicting her to be in tip-top condition. Last year, that was rarely a problem. At the French Open, she was suffering with flu-like symptoms all fortnight and was pushed to three sets on five occasions. Yet she still came away with the trophy.
However, a below-par Serena probably won’t be good enough to win the 2016 Australian Open. That’s because Victoria Azarenka appears to be back to her best. Since 2011, the Belarusian has been the one player that’s really stood up to Serena. Mentally, she’s never been intimated. Technically, she possesses the power and solidity from the baseline to stay with Williams’ ferociousness.
By the lofty standards of a two-time major winner and former World No. 1, the last couple of years have been pretty miserable for the wounded Azarenka – a tale of injury frustration and missed opportunities. But now, healthy and happy, she’s back to her best.
Last week in Brisbane, Azarenka ended a 28-month trophy drought by thrashing Angelique Kerber in the final with a punishing display of consistent, heavy hitting. With a settled coaching team in place and her injury troubles a thing of the past, expect Vika to soar up the rankings in 2016.
Moreover, on current form and fitness, many are backing her to clinch a third Australian Open crown. The women’s tour so far this year has been hit by a staggering number of retirements and withdrawals. Over an apocalyptic two-day period in early January, Serena, Simon Halep, Maria Sharapova, Garbine Muguruza, Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova all pulled out of their respective events. With Venus Williams crashing out in Auckland and Flavia Pennetta enjoying retirement, the top 10 was in turmoil.
Such uncertainty is sure to make the women’s singles in Melbourne compulsive viewing.
Photograph: Marianne Bevis via Flickr