Serena Williams is primed to move one Grand Slam closer to the apex of women’s tennis history, entering the U.S. Open in top form at an age when many see their skills erode.
Williams, who turns 31 next month, would be the oldest U.S. Open winner since Margaret Court in 1973 by continuing the form that yielded dominating wins at Wimbledon and the Olympics.
As play begins on Aug. 27 at the National Tennis Center in New York, Williams, with an unmatched service game, is the even-money favorite to win her 15th Grand Slam singles title, the fourth most for women since professionals were admitted in 1968. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova have 18 and Steffi Graf has 22. Court won 24, claiming 13 before the so-called Open era.
After a 17-year pro tennis career that’s had to compete for Williams’s attention with outside interests such as fashion design and acting, as well as a severe illness, she appears fresh and focused on taking her place among the game’s all-time greats, say those who’ve followed her career.
“She’s a rare athlete that has repeatedly re-invented herself,” Larry Scott, who ran the WTA tour from 2003 to 2009, said in an interview.
When Scott, now the commissioner of the Pac-12 college sports conference, took the women’s tour job he said he was repeatedly asked about the future of women’s tennis amid talk that Williams and her sister Venus, 32, soon would retire.
“Sitting here today in 2012 seeing Serena’s success at the Olympics, I think she has regularly defied her critics and in a way, taken a bit of a contrarian approach,” Scott said. “The fact that she and Venus have all these other interests in their lives has kept them fresh. They haven’t flamed out the way some others have.”
Williams won 72 of 89 games and never dropped more than three in any set during her run to a gold medal at the London Games. In late June she captured her 14th Grand Slam with a Wimbledon title that included a record 102 aces.
With $38.2 million in career tennis earnings, Williams also has acting credits on television shows such as “ER,” “Law & Order: SVU,” and “Drop Dead Diva.” She and her older sister Venus Williams will share the cover of the New York Times Magazine this weekend, as shown on the newspaper’s website. She grew up in Compton, California, and lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
Her sponsors have included Nike Inc., Wilson Sporting Goods Co., Hewlett-Packard Co., PureBrands LLC’s Sheets energy strips, PepsiCo Inc.’s Gatorade, Kraft Foods Inc.’s Oreo brand and IAC/InterActiveCorp’s Home Shopping Network, helping to make her known by better than 90 percent of U.S. consumers, according to Dallas-based Marketing Arm. That puts Williams in the company of Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian.
Williams said she cut her right foot on a shard of glass in July 2010 after winning her fourth Wimbledon title. She had two operations on the foot and in February 2011 was treated for a blood clot in her lung, an episode she later called “life-threatening.”
“She’s reached a spot in her life where she’s thankful to be around,” Bud Collins, a tennis journalist and historian, said in a telephone interview. “She’s always had the great talent and she would be injured or wasn’t in a good mood or something like that. Now she sees the future very well and she sees that she can perhaps become the greatest player of all time.”
Williams is the fourth-ranked player on the WTA tour, and the 15 tournaments she had entered in the previous year were fewer than any other player in the top 25. The light tennis schedule has worked for her but it’s not a winning formula for most players, according to former pro Jimmy Arias, a commentator for the Tennis Channel.
“You have to be better than everyone to take time off and keep winning,” Arias said, comparing Williams to Andre Agassi, who took time away from the game yet still won two Australian Opens after turning 30.
Williams’s play during serves, both while hitting and receiving, are what make her so difficult for her opponents to handle, Arias said.
“She starts every point out with such an advantage,” Arias said in a telephone interview.
Williams’s 382 aces are the most on the WTA tour, 151 more than No. 2 Nadia Petrova. Williams won 77.9 percent of points on first serve and 54.6 percent on second serve, both tops in the women’s game. She’s first in service games won (88.1 percent) and break points saved (68.6 percent).
Her first serve is powerful and well-aimed, “and more importantly, her second can’t seem to be attacked,” Arias said. “It’s heavy enough, it’s kicky enough that the other ladies are struggling to do much with it.”
New York Trouble
Williams missed the 2010 U.S. Open because of her health. Her most recent efforts ended in controversy. A 2009 semifinal loss concluded with a foot fault and a penalty point when she threatened a lineswoman. In 2011 she lost the final to Australia’s Samantha Stosur, dropping a point and service game in the second set after yelling “Come on!” in a moment of joy before a point was over. After the umpire issued a code violation Williams was verbally abusive, calling the umpire “a hater and unattractive inside.”
“My mind frame this year is that something is going to happen, for sure, because something always happens to me at the Open,” Williams told reporters during the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, where she lost in the quarterfinals last week to Angelique Kerber, a 24-year-old German. “Whether it’s a horrendous line call that’s two feet in or whether it’s a grunt and I get a point penalized, or a foot fault when I actually don’t foot fault, I’m prepared for something to happen.”
Williams, seeded fourth, has only lost once since a first-round elimination at the French Open in May. She begins play in the U.S. Open against 20-year-old American Coco Vandeweghe, with Las Vegas oddsmakers listing Williams as the 1-to-1 favorite to win the title -- bet $1, win $1 if she’s champion. Top seed Victoria Azarenka, 22, of Belarus and Maria Sharapova, 25, of Russia are next at 7-1 odds.
“It doesn’t feel as though there are many young players challenging,” Arias said. “It’s the same thing in the men’s game. All of the sudden older players are still dominating.”
If successful tennis seasons are judged by major championship victories, than the U.S. Open will be the tie-breaker that determines which man had the best 2012.
Top-seeded Roger Federer, 31, of Switzerland extended his all-time Grand Slam record to 17 with a seventh Wimbledon win last month. Defending U.S. Open champion Novak Djokovic, 25, of Serbia, who won the Australian Open for his third-straight Grand Slam in January, is seeded No. 2, followed by Olympic gold medalist Andy Murray, 25, of Britain. Spain’s Rafael Nadal, 26, who captured a record seventh French Open in June, will miss the U.S. Open with a knee injury.
As for Williams, she said she’s hungry for more Grand Slam wins, wanting to “keep doing more, and more, and more.”
“I love playing and walking out on the court and having that crowd clap for you and your opponent,” Williams said in Cincinnati. “That’s a great feeling. Doesn’t last forever. I’m stretching it out as long as I can.”