Ser­ena the pow­er­ful

The five-time Wim­ble­don champ goes for six

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY DOU­GLAS ROB­SON / IN PARIS

Ser­ena Wil­liams em­bod­ies big­match in­ten­sity. She might lose to un­knowns in lesser events and oc­ca­sion­ally stum­ble in the early rounds at ma­jors. But al­most never when it counts the most. In Grand Slam sin­gles and dou­bles fi­nals, Wil­liams is a ridicu­lous 334 (204 and 130) — not to men­tion 40 in Olympic gold medal matches. Yet her mind­set as the top seed head­ing into Wim­ble­don on Mon­day — where she can win a fourth con­sec­u­tive ma­jor and keep alive her quest for the first cal­endaryear Grand Slam in 27 years— could not be more blasé. If you take her at her word. “I don’t think that’s go­ing to de­fine my ca­reer or make or break it,” the No. 1ranked Amer­i­can said.

In an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view this month at her Paris pied-a-terre two days af­ter beat­ing Lu­cie Sa­farova to win her third French Open and 20th ma­jor over­all, Wil­liams pooh-poohed the mile­stone on ev­ery­one’s mind.

She is 14 matches away. St­effi Graf, in 1988, was the last player to win the Aus­tralian Open, French Open, Wim­ble­don and U.S. Open in a sin­gle sea­son. No player has cap­tured the first two legs since Jen­nifer Capriati in 2001.

Wil­liams, 33, said it would have pre­oc­cu­pied her in sea­sons past, but she has be­come so com­fort­able with her place in history, it mat­ters lit­tle.

“I don’t know how this sounds, but it’s not on top of my list,” she said, still snif­fling from the flu­like ill­ness that nearly de­railed her run in Paris. “My list right now is to do well at Wim­ble­don. And then my list is to do well at the U.S. Open. And then Aus­tralia.”

Wil­liams, clad in shorts and an or­ange-and-white top with her York­shire ter­rier, Chip, nes­tled in her arms, added:

“I don’t re­ally think, nor am I overly con­cerned, about win­ning a Grand Slam at this stage of my ca­reer. I think five years ago — yeah. Ten years ago, yeah it might have. Now I’ve got enough. I don’t need a Grand Slam to de­fine my ca­reer whereas maybe a fewyears ago if I didn’t have 20 Grand Slams then I would have needed that.”

It makes sense that Wim­ble­don re­mains her im­me­di­ate fo­cus. The five-time cham­pion has stum­bled lately on grass. She lost to Sabine Lisicki in the round of 16 in 2013 and to Al­ize Cor­net in the third round last year.

“I haven’t done well there in a while,” she said. “I had done well for so long in the be­gin­ning ofmy ca­reer, and now it’s just been like kinda shaky.”

Still, Wil­liams doesn’t act like she’s sim­ply ic­ing her ca­reer cake.

Though she is 32-1 in 2015, many of her matches have been drama-filled episodes where she has fallen be­hind, looked far from her best, and then lifted to another level and willed her­self to vic­tory.

She has bel­lowed “C’mons!”, lit­tered court­side mikes with Fbombs, and pleaded to the heav­ens and to her guest box, all in an ef­fort to get her came on track.

Pam Shriver, an ESPN an­a­lyst, said Wil­liams is prob­a­bly of both minds.

“Ath­letes are gifted at tak­ing bits of pres­sure off,” said the for­mer top-three player from Bal­ti­more. “I don’t dis­be­lieve her, but I think deep down she wants to be one of the few play­ers to go down with the cal­en­dar-year Slam.” Very nearly un­beat­able

What isn’t a mat­ter of spec­u­la­tion: Wil­liams, who turns 34 in Septem­ber, is bet­ter than ever, and more dis­tant from the field than at any time in her ca­reer.

Fol­low­ing an 11-month health and in­jury ab­sence in 2010-11, Wil­liams has been as close to un­touch­able as any player in history.

In 61 tour­na­ments since June 2011, she has cap­tured 30 ti­tles, seven ma­jors and com­piled a .924 win­ning per­cent­age (242-20). In the same num­ber of tour­na­ments be­fore be­ing side­lined, she won 11 ti­tles, six ma­jors and owned an .800 win­ning clip (180-45).

Her late-ca­reer suc­cess is the latest plot twist in a story of con­ven­tion-break­ing feats since she and her sis­ter Venus emerged from the tough streets of Comp­ton, Calif., in the mid-1990s.

Ser­ena Wil­liams re­turns to Wim­ble­don on the heels of another mini-come­back. When she de­parted Lon­don a year ago, she had failed to ad­vance past the fourth round in three pre­vi­ous ma­jors. And no exit was more bizarre than in Lon­don.

Three days af­ter los­ing to France’s Cor­net, a dazed Wil­liams flailed around the court in a dou­bles match with Venus be­fore re­tir­ing. Spec­u­la­tion about what ailed her was ram­pant. But Wil­liams re­bounded as only she can.

She lost just once the rest of the sea­son (not in­clud­ing a with­drawal and a re­tire­ment), cap­tured the U.S. Open, and with her two ma­jors in 2015 is now on the cusp of a sec­ond “Ser­ena Slam”— hold­ing all four ma­jors si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

Wil­liams won four con­sec­u­tive Grand Slams in 2001-02 when she was 21.

“What a turn­around that is,” said Shriver.

If Wil­liams ar­rives in Lon­don as a heavy fa­vorite once again, her ri­vals have aided her dom­i­na­tion. Reign­ing Wim­ble­don cham­pion Pe­tra Kvi­tova of the Czech Re­pub­lic, ranked No. 2, has strug­gled with her health and top form. The 2011 and 2014 Wim­ble­don cham­pion with­drew from this week’s warmup event in East­bourne, Eng­land, with an ill­ness.

Last year’s fi­nal­ist, Eu­ge­nie Bouchard, and 2012 run­ner-up Ag­nieszka Rad­wan­ska are mired in slumps. Third-ranked Simona Halep and No. 5 Caro­line Woz­ni­acki have yet to ap­proach last sea­son’s high lev­els.

Then there is Maria Shara­pova. The five-time Grand Slam cham­pion from Rus­sia, who shocked Wil­liams in the 2004 Wim­ble­don fi­nal, hasn’t beaten her in more than a decade and is 2-17 against her over­all.

“No one re­ally pushes her,” said for­mer No. 1 Justine Henin of Bel­gium, who was 4-3 against Wil­liams at ma­jors. “A few girls took some sets, but it seems like even men­tally it’s still very hard for the girls to go to the next step.”

The 5-foot-6 Henin, who re­tired at 28 in 2011, is im­pressed by Wil­liams’s longevity, dura­bil­ity and mo­ti­va­tion. She said Graf’s Open-era mark of 22 ma­jors, which the Amer­i­can could tie at the U.S. Open, and Mar­garet Smith Court’s all-time record of 24 are “in dan­ger.”

“Ser­ena has the phys­i­cal ca­pac­ity to be there a long time,” said Henin, a seven-time ma­jor win­ner. “Men­tally, it looks like she wants to be.” Get­ting bet­ter with age

Like the age­less Martina Navratilova, who ad­vanced to the 1994 Wim­ble­don fi­nal at age 37, Wil­liams is do­ing all she can to pro­long her ca­reer.

Three years ago, she went out­side her close-knit fam­ily for coach­ing help and en­listed French­man Pa­trick Mouratoglou. She sharp­ened her diet and at­ti­tude. She stepped up her of­f­court fit­ness with fit­ness guru Mackie Shil­stone.

With Mouratoglou, Wil­liams has won seven of the last 12 ma­jors and be­come a more well­rounded player at a time when most are fad­ing away.

“What’s most im­pres­sive is that he re­ally has a way to mo­ti­vate me,” Wil­liams said.

She also said the health scare four years ago trans­formed her.

“Be­fore, if I lost I would just be dev­as­tated,” she said. “I was in­con­solable and blah, blah, blah. Af­ter that, things could be worse than los­ing a ten­nis match.”

But with age comes new chal­lenges. In Aus­tralia, Wil­liams spoke of bat­tling nerves in sur­viv­ing sev­eral wob­bly matches on her way to a sixth Mel­bourne ti­tle in Jan­uary. At Roland Gar­ros, she bat­tled through five three-set matches, her most at a ma­jor.

“It’s not her best level but it’s good enough to al­most not lose a match for six months,” said Mouratoglou in an in­ter­view this month. “I’m okay with that level.”

Some observers be­lieve that Wil­liams is less com­fort­able on grass than hard courts, where she can set her feet be­fore rip­ping into her shots. She’s also less re­li­able at the net, which is more of a fac­tor on grass.

Per­haps the big­gest haz­ard to Wil­liams is that she knows the speedy courts at the All-Eng­land Club ben­e­fit her big serve and first-strike ag­gres­sion. When she doesn’t dom­i­nate, it ran­kles.

“On pa­per she should just breeze though ev­ery Wim­ble­don,” says 18-time ma­jor win­ner Chris Evert. Wil­liams agreed. “It’s not my fa­vorite sur­face, which is weird,” she said. “It never has been. But it does suit my game.”

Wil­liams is proud that she is al­ready hold­ing three ma­jors with a shot for a fourth— 12 years af­ter she first ran the ta­ble in a non-cal­en­dar year. “Those kind of feats mean a lot to me,” she said.

Maybe she has hit on the right for­mula, para­dox­i­cal as it seems on the sur­face. She can tell her­self it’s all gravy now, and as long as she avoids the pit­fall of dis­en­gag­ing too much of her ego, she can re­lax. That can be a fine line to strad­dle.

“I’m not think­ing about it,” she in­sisted once again about win­ning all four ma­jors. “I don’t want to think about it. I’m more fo­cused on the Ser­ena Slam. Well, for­get all that, I just want to do well at Wim­ble­don.”

Do you be­lieve her?

PHOTO BY QUINN ROONEY/GETTY IM­AGES EZ

IAN LANGS­DON/EURO­PEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

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