It was on a drab day in Paris in early November last year when Patrick Mouratoglou gave an indication of how rough 2015 had been for Serena Williams as she had chased the calendar year grand slam.
Mouratoglou, the coach who has helped to propel Serena to greatness with an incredible nine grand slam titles out of 17 since they joined forces in the summer of 2012, had left it 15 days after her US Open disappointment before speaking to her again, during which Williams was struggling to cope with going so close to a goal, and failing.
“The reaction was quite strong,” Mouratoglou said at the time. “She was really, really affected, which I think is normal when you are Serena. When you know her, she does everything with 100 per cent of her heart so you are more disappointed when you don’t reach your goal. Plus, she has a level of expectation that is much higher than anyone. I always say it’s not because she’s Serena and she’s used to winning that her level of expectation is [so high]; it’s because her level of expectation is [so high] that she is Serena.”
All players deal with disappointment and success differently but Williams has long operated on a different plane to the rest of the women’s Tour. What is satisfactory for others is not good enough for her. On Saturday, shortly after she won her seventh Wimbledon title with a 7-5, 6-3 win over Angelique Kerber to equal Steffi Graf’s open-era record of 22 grand slam singles titles, she was asked if she understood that now everyone would immediately start talking about the all-time record of 24, held by Margaret Court. Williams said she had learned that obsessing about numbers was no good for anyone, suggesting that the shackles are now off and the pressure would be reduced.
But Williams’ expectations are higher than those of others and so, by the time we get to the US Open, which begins in late August, the hype will be in full swing again. Victory in New York, where her semi-final defeat by Roberta Vinci ended her hopes of the calendar year grand slam last year, would put her on 23, one behind Court.
With respect to the Australian, who was there to see Williams win on Saturday, many of her victories came when tennis was restricted to amateurs, with smaller draws and only a limited number of nations involved. Billie Jean King, the woman everyone has to thank for the riches earned on Tour these days, believes Williams is the best player of all time. Martina Navratilova, who won 18 grand slam singles titles, says she has a great chance to pass Court. Surely, given the way she is playing, she can win two more grand slams, to end any debate that she is the best player who ever lived?
“One thing I learned about last year is to enjoy the moment,” Williams said. “I’m definitely going to enjoy this. I have the Olympics coming up. I’ll take it one at a time. I’ve learned a lot about 22. I learned not to get involved in those debates and conversations. I just learned to just play tennis. That’s what I do best. I just learned to be better. I also learned that you can’t win everything, even though I try really hard. I do the best that I can. I still am not going to be perfect.”
Williams turns 35 in September, an age when most players have long since put their rackets away. Graf quit when she was 30 but Williams has now won nine grand slams since turning 30, a stunning achievement and evidence of her longevity and her amazing ability to sustain a level of play that is too good for the rest, from this generation or any other. The wins by Kerber and Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain over Williams this year in the finals of the Australian and French Open would suggest that it is not going to get any easier for the world No1 to win grand slams. But as has been the case for most of her career, it is all about Serena. If she is motivated and healthy, then even with others making their move, she remains the best player, hands down.
The pressure of trying to equal Graf is gone. The stress of last year has disappeared and now, it seems, with Mouratoglou urging her on behind the scenes, she is ready to push on from here. She will be a big favourite to win a second singles gold medal at the Olympics in Rio next month and a fourth doubles gold medal with her sister, Venus, with whom she won a sixth Wimbledon title and 14th doubles grand slam title together on Saturday.
“If I kept one trophy, I would probably grab my gold medals,” she said. “But right now I am probably focused a little more on the slams, or at least I was with getting to 22. Now I feel like everything else will be pretty good.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010