Fully appreciating Serena Williams
From five-set epics to record-breaking title chases, tennis' attention has been firmly focused on the big four in the past couple of years.
But during this period there has been another player, one who can match the longevity of Roger Federer, the comeback of Rafael Nadal, the streaks of Novak Djokovic, and the perseverance of Andy Murray. Her name is Serena Williams, and she might be the most underplayed story in tennis these days.
Sheer numbers tell the tale. Nadal has won eight titles this year. So has Williams. Nadal's 2013 match record is 54-3. Williams' is 60-4. He won the French Open. So did she.
After all this time, it's easy to take Williams' presence at the top for granted -- but that's exactly why it shouldn't be. Despite a tight three-set loss to Victoria Azarenka in the Cincinnati final on Sunday, Williams comes into this year's US Open as the favorite, a full 14 years after first winning the title in 1999 and a decade since completing the Serena Slam in 2003. At 31, she is the oldest player to be ranked No. 1, returning in February to the top spot 11 years after first reaching it in 2002.
She isn't just still around -- she is perhaps more dominant against the field than ever. Her eight titles so far this year are already tied for her previous best in a season, and her recent 34-match winning streak was the longest of her career.
Combining quantity with quality is what distinguishes Williams' recent results from earlier in her career, when she was known for playing only intermittently between the four Grand Slams. A large part of the change can be traced back to the serious health scares she suffered in 2010, when cuts to her right foot led to medical complications that culminated in emergency hospitalization for a pulmonary embolism. By all accounts, Williams returned a year later much more committed to playing and training than before, and that seems only to have increased.
"In the last 16 months, I've been practicing a lot more," she said in an ESPN TV interview in Cincinnati last week.
That coincides with the beginning of her re-ascendance in April 2012, when she switched from all gut to hybrid strings. Williams is 108-6 in her matches since then, and 99-5 since hooking up with coach Patrick Mouratoglou after a first-round loss at the French Open last year.
But when it comes to the record she cares about the most -- majors won -- the 16-time Grand Slam champion seems to have suffered in comparison. She is only 1-for-3 this year at those events, with a quarterfinal loss to Sloane Stephens at the Australian Open and a fourth-round loss to Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon sitting on either side of her title at the French Open.
"You know me -- I'm not very happy with the way my year has been going," Williams told a small group of reporters at the WTA event in Toronto.
On a broader level, the trend is even more striking. Before 2011, Williams had 13 majors and 23 other singles titles. Since 2011, she has won three majors and 14 other titles, including one Olympic gold.
"Definitely different," she said. "I think for most of my career I was winning mostly Grand Slams and not as many small tournaments, but now it's more or less evening out. I'm OK with just winning Grand Slams," she added with arched eyebrows, but continued, "the smaller tournaments make you as a player. They make you win the Grand Slams."
Her recent domination has been so great that, physically or mentally, she has served as her own greatest opponent. Injuries played a role in her losses at the Australian Open the past two years, and there have been puzzling lapses, such as her subdued start in the final against Sam Stosur at the 2011 US Open, the bizarre battle against Virginie Razzano at the French Open last year, and her loss after being up a break in the third set at Wimbledon earlier this year. Nerves seemed to play a role in all those losses and appear to be affecting her more at this stage of her career.
"I was super nervous at the Roland Garros final, like I don't think I played well at all in that final," she revealed. "Even on one point when I was serving for the match, I just remember hitting a backhand so far out it was -- I thought, 'OK.' I was so nervous, so it definitely affects my play. I just try to breathe through it, and I try to overcome it."
Though Williams acknowledges she can be "so intense and so emotionally charged ... that sometimes it works against me," she also insists that being able to come back after such a big medical scare has left her "a little more relaxed."
"I never would have thought I would have been here, and I think that's what makes my game better," she said.
One burden she has referenced frequently in the past few weeks, however, is expectation from others. ''Everyone's always like, 'I'm the favorite to win,' and it's not easy," she said.
That will be the case once again at the US Open, which means that even though Williams is expected to romp through most of the field, there is still the intriguing prospect of watching her battle herself at the year's final major. This tournament is her last chance to turn her season from very good to great, and the pressure will be difficult to avoid. Physically, too, there are some question marks -- Williams experienced an abdominal problem in Cincinnati that affected her serving in her last two matches.
And with Azarenka stepping up in the final stages of Sunday's match in Cincinnati to record her second win of the year against Williams on hard courts, there is also the possibility that Williams will have a real challenger to contend with at Flushing Meadows.
She has won so much for so long that her continuing victories have almost become part of the landscape. But the transformation of Williams' results over the last year and a half, and the collective weight of her accomplishments during that period, should not go unnoticed.