Looking at her performances in singularity, Serena Williams had a great outing in 2016. She reached three Grand Slam finals, won one and made it to the semi-finals of the fourth, before finishing the year as the World No. 2, belatedly conceding her top spot in the rankings to Angelique Kerber. From the vantage point of her usual standards, it was, however, a mediocre performance from the American, in a year where unorthodoxy prevailed over conventional results.
Her form also contextualised the point about the impact her presence has had in the professional tennis circuit in the near 22-years that she’s been around. And what it meant as an extension of her career, in the days ahead.
The Serena legacy
To elaborate, it would do well to rewind back and peer closely into a couple of Williams’s notable years on the Tour. For, these highs invariably led to the enunciation of the road-map of her career, both positively and negatively.
One was in 2002-’03, her first peak since turning pro as a 14-year-old in September 1995. In the span of a year, starting at the 2002 French Open up to Wimbledon the next year, Williams completed the Grand Slam – or the Serena Slam, as it came to be known – by winning all the four Majors consecutively. She maintained this aura of dominance for the next few years, all the while buffeting against injuries.
It spoke a great deal about her passion for the sport, indicating her desire to come out as the winner each time she stepped on the court. The parallel soaring of her self-importance, however, detracted from her fierce competitiveness. Nor did the latter indemnify her against her hubris-influenced behavioural problems, which brought out an unflattering truth that her sportsmanship took a dive in case of defeats.
The year 2011 shaped the Serena Williams the world is seeing presently. The near-fatal encounter she had with pulmonary embolism at the start of the year brought out a different side of the champion, without diminishing her determination to succeed. Her tantrums at the US Open final that year are a tag of infamy still attached to her name. But in these five years she has more than made up for that last lapse. She has developed the mentality of being accepting of her losses and whole-heartedly appreciative of her rivals, who upstage her. In doing so, she has managed to attain more renown in her career than she would have herself hoped.
The unexpected turnarounds
The 2014-’15 season was the encapsulation of the second cresting of her peak. It was also the threshold that ushered in the 2016 season leading to the cascade of events that followed.
Williams won the Serena Slam for the second time, winning consecutively from the Wimbledon in 2014 to the 2015 French Open. Along with this, she also smashed a torrent of records and was within sight of conquering the Grand Slam. Eventually, though she was thwarted by Roberta Vinci in the US Open semi-finals that year, for the then 34-year-old it meant coming back next year and taking another stab at the prospect.
Williams not being able to do so this year has led to expectations being built all over again for her to try once again. This confidence is not so well-placed when it comes to discussing the players, who pipped her across the year in half-a-dozen events, including the Slams, to make their mark. Such opining then comes in the wake of an unaltered trend, segueing from the past to the present.
Her challengers – the ones who have long retired and the ones who are still around – have never been able to stall her successively. With Williams getting past them if only by the sheer force of her will, if not the acuity of her game on the given day. A more deliberating eventuality has been that quite a few of them have drifted away from fulfilling their potential consistently. In 2016 itself, the constancy of her rivals including Kerber, came about in snatches rather than a free-flowing succession from the start till the end of the season.
A crucial juncture
Nuances like these then make Serena Williams the back-up as much as the primary favourite, regardless of all other contenders in the fray. And, while 2017 could reiterate this pattern, it would also be a deviation.
Williams’ exploits in 2015 left a jagged imprint this year with her physique rebelling against her, symbolic of how time – by way of her age – was not in her control. On the cusp of the new season, Williams then stands at a peculiar crossroad, engaging in a simultaneous dual rivalry with visible opponents and intangible entities.
She can convincingly take on the former and come out as the winner. But against the latter’s resoluteness, it is doubtful whether she can dictate similarly or emerge victorious as she did a decade before, despite being battered.
And, if time does bend Serena Williams’ will, it would mean an ironic twist to the latter portion of her career being impaired by the same inconsistency she’d tried to evade all along. But it would also lead to time-determined brief moments of glory, those leaving women’s tennis entirely short-changed and in need of someone to capitalise on, much like a gutsy Michigan native did, seemingly not so long ago.