From 1999 to 2015, when Serena Williams was part of a Grand Slam draw, there could only be one winner – Serena Williams. Or one loser – Serena Williams. And the only one who could beat Serena Williams was Serena Williams herself.

Her record in Major finals during that period was an incredible 21-4; a record which more than anything showed how she would raise her game to match the occasion.

Her killer instinct was always on display in those matches. She was as clutch as clutch could get. She even triumphed at the Australian Open without dropping a set while pregnant. There would be the initial nerves but once she found her rhythm, there would be no stopping her. The opponent, it would seem, was often there just to make up the numbers. These performances gave her an aura and a bullet-proof belief in her powers.

It also gave everyone else the belief that her march to Margaret Court’s record of most singles Grand Slam titles was a mere formality. She just needed to step back on court and her experience would do the rest; her power would do the rest; her killer instinct would be enough.

But as she succumbed to her fourth successive defeat in a Grand Slam final, there was a question on everyone’s mind: where is that Serena?

Serena Williams in Grand Slam finals

Result Year Tournament Surface Opponents Score
Win 1999 US Open Hard  Martina Hingis 6–3, 7–6(7–4)
Loss 2001 US Open Hard  Venus Williams 2–6, 4–6
Win 2002 French Open Clay  Venus Williams 7–5, 6–3
Win 2002 Wimbledon Grass  Venus Williams 7–6(7–4), 6–3
Win 2002 US Open Hard  Venus Williams 6–4, 6–3
Win 2003 Australian Open Hard  Venus Williams 7–6(7–4), 3–6, 6–4
Win 2003 Wimbledon Grass  Venus Williams 4–6, 6–4, 6–2
Loss 2004 Wimbledon Grass  Maria Sharapova 1–6, 4–6
Win 2005 Australian Open Hard  Lindsay Davenport 2–6, 6–3, 6–0
Win 2007 Australian Open Hard  Maria Sharapova 6–1, 6–2
Loss 2008 Wimbledon Grass  Venus Williams 5–7, 4–6
Win 2008 US Open Hard  Jelena Janković 6–4, 7–5
Win 2009 Australian Open Hard  Dinara Safina 6–0, 6–3
Win 2009 Wimbledon Grass  Venus Williams 7–6(7–3), 6–2
Win 2010 Australian Open Hard  Justine Henin 6–4, 3–6, 6–2
Win 2010 Wimbledon Grass  Vera Zvonareva 6–3, 6–2
Loss 2011 US Open Hard  Samantha Stosur 2–6, 3–6
Win 2012 Wimbledon Grass  Agnieszka Radwańska 6–1, 5–7, 6–2
Win 2012 US Open Hard  Victoria Azarenka 6–2, 2–6, 7–5
Win 2013 French Open Clay  Maria Sharapova 6–4, 6–4
Win 2013 US Open  Hard  Victoria Azarenka 7–5, 6–7(6–8), 6–1
Win 2014 US Open  Hard  Caroline Wozniacki 6–3, 6–3
Win 2015 Australian Open Hard  Maria Sharapova 6–3, 7–6(7–5)
Win 2015 French Open  Clay  Lucie Šafářová 6–3, 6–7(2–7), 6–2
Win 2015 Wimbledon Grass  Garbiñe Muguruza 6–4, 6–4
Loss 2016 Australian Open Hard  Angelique Kerber 4–6, 6–3, 4–6
Loss 2016 French Open Clay  Garbiñe Muguruza 5–7, 4–6
Win 2016 Wimbledon Grass  Angelique Kerber 7–5, 6–3
Win 2017 Australian Open Hard  Venus Williams 6–4, 6–4
Loss 2018 Wimbledon Grass  Angelique Kerber 3–6, 3–6
Loss 2018 US Open Hard  Naomi Osaka 2–6, 4–6
Loss 2019 Wimbledon Grass  Simona Halep 2–6, 2–6
Loss 2019 US Open Hard  Bianca Andreescu 3–6, 5–7

Age catches up with everyone. The great champions become a step slower, the younger ones become more adventurous. But when it comes to sheer shot-making ability, Serena is still able to match the best in the game. Physically, she seems to be back at her best but mentally, she seems to have hit an insurmountable hurdle for now.

She’s not just lost matches… she has failed to win a single set in any of the four finals. It seems almost impossible to believe given that the mental game was perhaps her strongest point.

“I believe I could have played better,” Serena said after the match. “I believe I could have done more today. I believe I could have just been more Serena today.”

She added: “I honestly don’t think Serena showed up. I have to kind of figure out how to get her to show up in Grand Slams final.”

Steffi Graf 377
Martina Navratilova 332
Serena Williams 319
Chris Evert 260
Martina Hingis 209
Monica Seles 178
Justine Henin 117
Lindsay Davenport 98
Caroline Wozniacki 71
Simona Halep 64

A mind game

Serena Williams’ mental fragility shows us once why sport is a mind game and how it doesn’t take much to derail an athlete. Sometimes, it could be the lifestyle. Sometimes, it could be a coaching change. Sometimes, it could be something someone said. Sometimes, it could be a particular opponent. Sometimes, it could be the wind. Sometimes, it could be the referee. It can be anything. It is a fine, fine line.

If anything, her losses in these four finals only highlight how difficult it is to stay at the top of the pyramid for an extended period of time and perhaps how it is even more difficult to find your way back to top if even one thing falls out of sync. She has spent a total of 319 weeks as world No 1 – only Martina Navratilova (332) and Steffi Graf (377) have spent more time at the top spot.

Serena lived her life – fashion and activism mixed with her love for tennis – but her focus on the game never wavered. She would keep adding elements to her game and somehow, keep getting better. But now, she’s hit a road bump unlike any she in her career and for once, she has not arrived at the answer yet.

“All of it honestly, truly is super frustrating,” Serena told the press. “I’m, like, so close, so close, so close, yet so far away. I don’t know what to say.

She added: “I guess I got to keep going if I want to be a professional tennis player. And I just got to just keep fighting through it.”

At various points in the last few months, Serena has mentioned that she the historic 24th Grand Slam title isn’t something she is spending too much time thinking about. But certainly, it seems to be part of the problem. The feat has been on her mind ever since made her comeback but with each Grand Slam, it seems to move a little farther away from her. Winning now would perhaps mean more to her than at any other point in her career and knowing that makes it tougher.

She is playing better, she is looking better but before she beats anyone else in a final, she will have to once again beat her own mind. In a way, despite the quality of her opponents, to everyone watching... it is still Serena vs Serena.

If Serena turns up in mind, body and spirit, there will be no stopping her. At the moment, though, it is a very big ‘if’.