There have been some years in which Serena Williams was a walking question mark coming into the Australian Open.
This isn't one of them. Try boldface exclamation point instead.
Williams will take the court in the season's first Grand Slam event as the third seed and undisputed favorite in a tournament she's won five times previously. She has lost just once since last June, a roll that included running the table at Wimbledon, the London Olympics, U.S. Open and WTA year-end championships. She picked up in the new year by winning the Brisbane tune-up event without dropping a set, and told reporters she hopes to become the oldest-ever women's No. 1 at age 31 -- which she can do by reaching the final in Melbourne, regardless of anyone else's results. .
With her brilliant second half of 2012, Williams has pulled within statistical hailing distance of the icons of modern women's tennis. She is three Slam titles shy of equaling the 18 held by Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, who are tied for second on the all-time list behind Steffi Graf's 22. It is a heady yet grounded time for a player who has struggled with consistency and motivation at a few junctures of her career.
And that is just the point. One of the few things Williams has left to prove is that she can put together back-to-back complete, great seasons -- something that has often eluded her.
"Two majors would be an expected year for her," said ESPN analyst Pam Shriver. "This is a big year for her to prove she can do it two years in a row. With the Serena Slam [in 2002-03], she dominated for the better part of two years, and then she meandered around.
"She's by far the best tennis player of this generation. When you start to get to Chris and Martina, and then Graf, that's the rarefied air of our sports history," Shriver added. "[The 2012 season] started to ask the question, can we put her in that company? Is she the best of all time? Her overall record doesn't warrant that yet, but it's right there. History is not too far in front of her."
Williams targeted a championship at Roland Garros last year, seeking to repeat at the major she had won for the only time a decade before, and played well leading up to it on the surface where she is most vulnerable. Her first-round loss and uncharacteristic mental letdown shocked her.
"After what happened in Paris, with so many players, you'd say, 'Maybe the decline has started,'" said ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert. "But she stayed in Paris, she trained and got a little bit of a new voice. This coach is around a lot and seems to be a good influence and has helped keep her motivated."
Williams has flourish ed under French coach and academy director Patrick Mouratoglou since she began working with him after one of her biggest debacles. (Neither has addressed speculation that their relationship is more intimate despite photographs that have bounced around cyberspace for months showing them in affectionate proximity.)
The five analysts interviewed on the eve of the Australian Open agreed Williams' current groove is mainly a function of the focus she has sometimes lacked in the past, rather than any particular technical tweak. "Sometimes, mind you, it was for very good reasons, like personal grief [after the violent death of her half-sister], or health," Shriver said of Williams' periodic absences and inconsistency. "When she opted out, it was not always her choice."
Dominant as Williams has been, U.S. Olympic and Fed Cup team coach Mary Joe Fernandez said Serena doesn't coast in practice and structures her training sessions with an eye on eliminating weaknesses.
"She's really worked on getting the ball earlier, taking it away from her opponent not only with power but with timing," said Fernandez, who predicted Williams could sweep all four Slam titles if she remains injury-free. "I think she's at her best not when she's blasting all the time, but when she's constructing the points and having that controlled aggression.
"She's fit, and more importantly, really hungry."
ESPN analyst and U.S. Tennis Association player development director Patrick McEnroe said he has the impression that Williams has a clarity about her goals that was sometimes missing before.
"All of her other interests are great, but at this point, she's really concentrated on tennis," he said. "And maybe if she had been earlier, she wouldn't be now.
"I said a number of years ago that I thought Serena could have an Agassi-like renaissance in the latter stages of her career, and I think she's proven me to be correct. I don't see why she can't win multiple majors this season. Her motivation and mindset are better than they've ever been."
McEnroe wasn't the only observer who compared Williams to Andre Agassi.
"I don't know how much she thinks about history," said CBS and NBC commentator Mary Carillo. "What I do believe is that she has recognized since last summer that she could very well be at the height of her powers. It's very much like what Agassi realized after winning the French at 29 and holding all four majors. It took him a while to understand his gifts and own them.
"Maybe that's how Serena is. She knows she's part of the conversation [about the greatest player of all time] and I think she's comfortable with that idea now. And that's all for the good of the game. This version of Serena is the one I've always wanted to see. She's looking to win every time she walks on the court, and she really seems to be enjoying what she's doing. And she's been totally overwhelming people. This is her time."
Williams' longevity is somewhat deceiving. She won her first major nearly 14 years ago, but can legitimately be described the way Gilbert does, as a "young 31." Her absences from the game, enforced and voluntary, and her unapologetic emphasis on Slams as opposed to run-of-the-mill WTA tournaments have been controversial at times, but also added up to less physical wear and tear.
"She flirted with other career options way too early," Shriver said. "But I give her credit, because she did come back. She didn't have the hyper-focus of some of the other great champions, but maybe if she had, she wouldn't be where she is now.
"When she's on, she's better than anybody who's ever been there. You take a couple of these matches and I can't imagine any woman in the history of the game that could stay with her."
Who could stay with her in Melbourne? Despite a lopsided 1-11 record against Williams, world No. 1 and defending Aussie Open champ Victoria Azarenka of Belarus has proven she is capable of going toe-to-toe with her, notably in last year's three-set U.S. Open final. McEnroe said he considers Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic a potentially worthy challenger. "She has a big game, but she doesn't have the mobility or the consistency," he said. "Unless you can hang with Serena mentally and competitively, you're going to get squashed."
The balance of power in women's tennis has shifted from youth to experience and as Carillo underscored, "It's not like there are teenage phenoms who can come along and shake your confidence like Tracy Austin did to Chrissie." Or as 17-year-old Maria Sharapova did to Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon final, a loss Carillo and others think Williams will never forgive herself for or forget.
Sharapova is the only active WTA player comparable to Williams in star power and stature (and ownership of a career Grand Slam), but Williams hasn't lost against her in nine matches over the past eight years and appeared to take particular delight in dismantling the Russian 6-0, 6-1 in last summer's Olympic gold-medal match.
Sometimes the hardest thing to do in any game is simply what's expected, but that weight seems to sit easily on Williams' powerful shoulders these days. One of her stock lines over the years has been the assertion that the only player who can undo her is herself. At the moment, she appears to have overcome that most formidable opponent.