Serena's Grand Slam quest continues at AO 2021

  • Matt Trollope

Will Serena Williams capture a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam singles title?

It is one of the more intriguing plot lines in tennis, with the focus now on AO 2021 where Williams will be gunning for an incredible eighth title at Melbourne Park. 

It is a venue where she has won more AO singles titles than any woman in the Open era, and 87 singles matches – more than any female player in the tournament’s history.

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Ranked 11th, aged 39 and a mother to three-year-old Olympia, the task ahead of Williams is getting tougher, according to former-pro-turned-commentator Jelena Dokic. But the Australian believes Williams is capable of another Grand Slam victory.

"As long as Serena's in a draw, she always has a chance. If she gets into that second week, she's always dangerous,” Dokic told ausopen.com.

“For people to count her out, I think it's way too early to do that, and even to think that.

"I think she loves the game, and she loves to compete. She doesn't like to lose. And as long as she feels like she can win big tournaments and Grand Slams, she'll continue competing. 

"Why would you quit? It's a different story if you're 50 in the world and struggling to regain form. But she's actually not. She's still doing well in Grand Slams. Maybe not winning them, but still getting to the semis and the finals. So why would you stop trying? 

“I admire that a lot.”

Nothing to prove

Both Serena, and her coach Patrick Mouratoglou, admit she is chasing the all-time record of 24 major singles titles, and hoping to pass it.

Yet Williams’ place in history is secure. “I don't have to win another match as long as I live,” she said during the AO 2017 fortnight, which ended with her most recent Grand Slam title.

Serena earned her Open era-record 23 major singles trophies when the degree of difficulty – thanks to 128-player draws, strength of field, and number of countries represented – was never higher.

Many fans, pundits and fellow players believe she is already the Greatest of All Time. 

“What is the continuing motivation for this woman?” esteemed tennis broadcaster Mary Carillo wondered aloud on a 2020 episode of The Tennis Podcast. “God knows she does not have to keep putting herself under that kind of stress and continuing to train for that long.

“Going forward, can she find another gear? Her power, (once) nobody could live with it. And now there’s a bunch of players that she has inspired … that can live with her like that. 

“Serena is now facing a brand of tennis that she pretty much designed.”

Enduring legacy

Two of those players, Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu, upstaged Williams in recent US Open finals.

Osaka – whose message to Serena before that 2018 final was “I love you!” – did so by serving just as fast and playing just as big from the baseline, moving perhaps even more explosively.

Andreescu, who hugged Serena after their Toronto final and said, “I know everything about you!”, monstered Williams’ second serves with powerful returns in the 2019 finale.

"In a way it's flattering,” Dokic said. “Serena has been the benchmark for more than 20 years, and how old is Andreescu? 20 years old. She grew up watching and idolising her, and Naomi as well. (Osaka) plays pretty much the same as Serena does.”

Australian Open 2020 finalists Sofia Kenin and Garbine Muguruza also idolised Williams, before beating her at Roland Garros. Kenin did so in 2019, while Muguruza upset Serena in the 2016 final. “If you want to win a Grand Slam, when you dream, you say, ‘I want Serena in the final’,” the Spaniard once said.

They are not the only threats confronting Williams in the AO 2021 field; world No.1 Ash Barty and Polish teen star Iga Swiatek are yet to face her since becoming major champions themselves.

Case for, case against

Few people can confidently predict what will play out in Serena’s ongoing Grand Slam quest.

Since her comeback in March 2018 following childbirth, Williams has, impressively, reached four major finals. Except she lost all four in straight sets.

A selective schedule, plus an enforced break due to COVID-19, has spared her body of some wear-and-tear. But with so few matches under her belt, her body has often broken down.

Every Grand Slam final in which she appears is another opportunity created to make history. But each one she loses makes the psychological hurdle to clear next time that little bit higher.

Williams’ enduring ability to compete at the very highest level is simply extraordinary. Except no 39-year-old has ever won a Grand Slam singles title in the Open Era.

Central to Serena’s career has been her tendency to defy convention and re-write the record books. 

Victory at Australian Open 2021 could be the latest, and greatest, example of just that.