Serena plays straight bat ahead of title defence bid
ERHAPS it is the perfect state of mind for her to be in as she seeks to hang on to the last of her Grand Slam titles, but Serena Williams was certainly in defensive mode yesterday.
This time last year the American was the undisputed queen of women’s tennis poised as she was to complete the second “Serena Slam” and not least because of the remarkable 12-year gap that separates those two great achievements, her place among the all-time greats of the game has long been secure.
However, for by no means the first time in her career she seemed bored rather than excited when looking ahead to the coming fortnight and a succession of questions were deemed worthy of only cursory responses.
So, in brief, she is not feeling any extra pressure in spite of the loss of her other three Grand Slam titles in the past year; does not care who she meets first; is leaving research on that first round opponent, Amra Sadikovic, to her coach; reckons Novak Djokovic will get the calendar Grand Slam that has eluded her “easy”; does not know who the favourite for the women’s title is; cannot remember anything significant about her first competitive visit to Wimbledon; and she definitely does not have anything further to add to her previous comments about the ban imposed on her rival Maria Sharapova.
In saying all of that she claimed to be relaxed and feeling no pressure. Yet the contrast with the demeanour of the latest woman to take one of the big prizes away from her, Garbine Muguruza, could hardly have been more striking.
The 22-year-old Spaniard had looked totally at ease, flicking her hair around playfully as she had fun in candidly answering questions about the difficulty she finds in adjusting to playing on grass and pretty much playing down her prospects in a way that can only minimise any pressure the new French Open champion will feel as she begins her campaign.
Perhaps that can partly be attributed to the difference between Muguruza’s new-found status and that of a veteran who has done all of this before.
And there was certainly no question of Williams seeking to play the underdog in spite of the succession of setbacks she has suffered since she also got within a victory of matching the 22 titles won by the woman who dominated the sport in the years before she and sister Venus emerged.
It would probably be most fitting, too, if Williams was to match Steffi Graf’s Grand Slam haul by also matching her seven titles at this particular venue and she is certainly voicing no qualms about being back on this terrain.
“I enjoy it just being on grass,” Williams said. “It’s usually the only tournament I play on grass. It’s a unique experience. You know, it’s just that one time a year you just get to get on this amazing, beautiful surface. It feels really good.”
If age is taking any sort of toll on the 34-year-old then, for all that there is no readiness to acknowledge any sort of increased vulnerability on any surface just yet. There is also the awareness that the rallies will certainly be shorter than on clay and even hard courts so should make her power all the more telling.
“I guess they’re a little faster than most other surfaces, so I think that works good for me, but either way, I just feel like all surfaces I’m pretty well adept on,” said Williams.
There is an element in her manner which suggests that she is also deeply aware of the risk of the “fear factor” that forms a major part of great champions’ armoury being eroded by her losses.
Perhaps all the more in terms of the impact on other opponents, when suffering major upsets at the hands of Roberta Vinci in the US Open semifinal and Angelique Kerber in the Australian Open final, than when she was beaten earlier this month by Muguruza who is now being tipped to go on and become the new force in the women’s game.
For now, too, Williams still knows the correct things to say in terms of dealing with that latest defeat.
Even if, in the context not just of having won 21 previous Grand Slam titles, but the way that has been achieved, she has set standards for herself that will make it very hard to follow through upon.
“I think it’s important to learn from every loss that you have,” she said.
“I think in particular I usually do, throughout my whole career I have been able to, like, learn a lot, to come off, to come back a much better player.”
Coming back a much better player than Serena Williams has been will take some doing.
ON THE DEFENSIVE: Serena Williams may feel she has a point to prove this year