Can Serena Williams still rebound?
At one time, an early loss by Serena Williams at a Grand Slam tournament, infrequent as it may have been, almost guaranteed a resounding rejoinder the next opportunity she had.
Some cases in point: Following her third-round loss at the French Open in 2008, Williams reached the final at Wimbledon and then captured the next two Grand Slam titles. After a first-round loss at the French in 2012, she won Wimbledon, two Olympic gold medals and the US Open, and four of the next six Slams in all.
But is it conceivable that we have become so used to Williams' dominance that we may be missing a downward trend? That even at Wimbledon, which begins on Monday and where she has won five singles titles, rebounds are no longer automatic?
Is it possible that it is no longer Williams versus the rest of women's tennis?
"I think she has plenty to fuel her," ESPN analyst Pam Shriver said. "The French [three weeks ago] was not just any loss, but ... her worst loss in a major ever. And last year she fizzled at Wimbledon trying to defend her title [with a fourth-round loss to Sabine Lisicki].
"I think she's going to be really tight and have the feeling, 'I definitely need to win this one,' which sometimes produces desperate, but usually pretty good, tennis from her. And I think she'll prepare well."
Williams, with 17 Grand Slam singles titles, is still one short of tying Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and seven shy of Margaret Court's record of 24. Williams is coming off a 2013 season in which she went 78-4 and won 11 titles. But she will be 33 in September and also is coming off two subpar majors in a row: the second-round exit at the French and a fourth-round exit at the Australian Open (losing to Ana Ivanovic) in January.
Williams also has exited in the fourth round in two of her last three Wimbledons, though they were sandwiched around a 2012 title.
So which version of the greatest tennis player of her generation will show up at the All-England Lawn Tennis Club next week? And can she still turn it on and off at will?
"It's harder to turn it on when you get older, but if anyone can do it, it's Serena," said Navratilova, now a Tennis Channel analyst. "On the grass turf she can do that and get away with it. ...
"It was different two years ago after she lost early at the French and was rejuvenated after the loss. Now it feels like a slightly different time in her career. But she still feels she owns the grass, where she is mentally so much tougher and more competent than anyone out there. So I still see her as the favorite.
"Eventually age will catch up. It just hasn't happened to her yet."
Williams complained of fatigue and said she needed to "regroup" after losing in the first round of the Family Circle Cup in March, "a telltale sign," Navratilova said, "that the fire perhaps is not as strong as a year ago because she hadn't played that much at that point."
Williams withdrew from the quarters the following week in Madrid with a leg injury but won the Italian Open over Sara Errani going into the French.
After the surprising loss at Roland Garros, Williams' coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said she still has the powers of rejuvenation.
"She's definitely the kind of person that, when something bad happens to her, is always able to react," he said. "It's really something that she has in herself."
After the French loss, Williams vowed to go home and "work five times as hard to make sure I never lose again."
Since then, she has Instagrammed photos of herself with Caroline Wozniacki and Usain Bolt at Miami Heat playoff games. And there have been whispers in the tennis world that she may be distancing herself from Mouratoglou, speculation that began in late February after a semifinal loss in Dubai to Alize Cornet and a cryptic tweet from Williams that read: "Me. Mine. Alone. Myself. I. One. Solo. Unaccompanied."
Like she's done for most of her career, Williams is not playing a Wimbledon tuneup. But Shriver predicted Williams would get some solid preparation at home in South Florida with hitting partner Sascha Bajin.
"She and Sascha do some really good work together," Shriver said. "He's extremely experienced, and he's more than a hitting partner; he's really another coach. If she has him and a familiar practice [setting] where she can focus, that could be really good."
The fact that she would not be practicing on grass, Shriver said, hardly matters.
"Grass is a surface that, while good to be on it sometime before, with her serve it doesn't matter if she's serving on cement, grass or a block of ice if she gets that rhythm back."
Both Ivanovic at the Australian Open and Muguruza at the French uncharacteristically punished Williams' serve.
"She needs to re-establish her serve as a dominant weapon in women's tennis, and she can do that on grass," Shriver said. "If you're a great server and you get on a grass court, suddenly you feel that bounce in your step being on a surface that really pays dividends.
"She needs to get that swagger back on her serve, and I think she will."
According to Evert, who will analyze the tournament for ESPN, it never really left.
"She's walking on the court 2-love or 3-love already," she said. "If the serve is going, the grass is custom-made for her. It frees her up to go for the returns. She's athletic, she moves well, she stays down low. ... She's the best grass-court player in my mind right now."
Still, Evert said, the pressure will be on Williams at Wimbledon.
"I think all eyes are going to be on how she's doing," she said. "If she can get through the first week, that's going to be the big thing. Once she gets through the first week, gets the ball rolling, gets more comfortable on the grass, she'll be unbeatable."
Navratilova agreed, but not with the pressure part.
"Her coach put some pressure on her at the beginning of the year when he talked about her winning a Grand Slam before the Australian Open, and that didn't work so well," she said. "Now the pressure is off and she can kind of relax. The expectations of everyone else are lowered and she's still fired up.
"You can't read into the past too much with Serena. She can play amazing tennis when you least expect it."