“Does she need that validation? I don’t think she needs that validation.”
Patrick Mouratoglou has always been clear in his view that Serena Williams doesn’t need a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title to be regarded as the greatest player ever. His comment above was at the Australian Open earlier this year, when Williams lost to Naomi Osaka in the semi-finals. And as she turned 40 on Sunday, Mouratoglou, who has coached Williams since 2012, said her legacy is secure whether she equals, breaks, or falls short of Margaret Court’s record.
“It would be better if Serena broke her record but, if she doesn't, she will still be the greatest player of all time,” Mouratoglou said.
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It’s hard to argue, given Williams’ complete dominance over the last 20 years. With 23 Grand Slam titles, 73 career titles, 319 weeks as world No. 1, and countless WTA records to her name, Williams clearly has nothing left to prove. Yet clearly she is still playing on for something. For No. 24.
As she turns 40, and looks to recover from a hamstring injury that kept her out of the recent US Open, Williams is not playing to win minor tournaments. Nor is she playing to be top of the rankings again; she has slipped down to No. 40 after only playing six tournaments this year. She is playing for another opportunity to further strengthen her claim as the greatest player ever.
When Williams won her 23rd Grand Slam title at the 2017 Australian Open it seemed unthinkable that she wouldn’t break Court’s record. But becoming a mother later that summer led to a long break and she has not been able to get over the line since.
What’s missing? Williams has been beaten in her four Grand Slam final appearances since winning her last major in 2017, and Mouratoglou thinks there has been a slight change in mindset.
"She still has it,” he told AFP. “The question is how much she wants it and what is she willing to do to get there? Since she had her daughter, it's harder. She has a lot of trouble not putting her life as a mother before her life as a player, which is completely understandable.
"I think that's the main reason she didn't win a Grand Slam. Her family comes first and, in order to be able to do great things in one area, that area can't come second. She is reflecting and we will see what comes out of it."
Williams hasn’t played since her emotional first-round retirement at Wimbledon, when she suffered an injury early in her match against Aliaksandra Sasnovich. It seems unlikely that she will play again this year, and with strict Covid-19 restrictions again set to be place for the Australian Open, it is not certain that she will return there either. It has been reported that talks are ongoing between Victoria's Government and Tennis Australia officials over whether players will need to be vaccinated to compete at the tournament.
If Williams doesn't play in Melbourne that would mean nearly a year-long wait for the next shot at a Grand Slam title, with Wimbledon and the US Open her best opportunities.
It is not impossible that Williams will win again. She would be the first 40-year-old to win a Grand Slam singles title, but she is already the oldest woman to win a Grand Slam and reach a Grand Slam final. In her 30’s she won 10 majors, which is as many as most players could dream of winning for their entire career.
The key for Williams is fitness. Can she get back to 100 per cent and sustain that over two weeks of a Grand Slam? “That has become more of a challenge,” former world No. 6 Chanda Rubin told the Tennis Channel. “Throughout her career she has shown herself to be durable and has been able to come back and play herself into shape in a tournament, but that becomes tougher as you get older.
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“You get the confidence from at least being able to stay out on the court, that starts on the practice court if not the match court, and that’s where she is right now.”
Roger Federer also turned 40 recently and he told GQ about the challenges that come with getting older. “I think the biggest difference for me that I feel is that when you are 20 and you have a back issue, a couple of good sleeps and it’s done, it’s gone. Not so much now! Nowadays, the pain can last for days, weeks or longer. And this slows you down in terms of how many tournaments [you can play].”
The last of Williams’ 73 career titles came in Auckland in January 2020. Since then she has only played sporadically and has suffered several injuries that have prevented her from competing in more events. If that trend continues into 2022 it’s hard to see her winning another Grand Slam at 70-80 per cent, especially with Emma Raducanu’s blazing run at the US Open fresh in the mind. The strength in depth at the top of the WTA Tour right now makes a two-week Slam a tough event. And with only two top-20 wins in the last two years, Williams has not been as dominant as she was once.
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If she is going to win another major she will have to be at her best - and Mouratoglou said at this year’s French Open that he would always back her if she is. “The level is high but I still believe that, when Serena is 100 per cent at the top of her physical form, she can win any Slam.”
But Mouratoglou also alluded to the pressure on Williams as she bids to make more history. She has lost in four major finals since winning in Melbourne in 2017 and has made two other semi-finals. In five of those six matches she was beaten in straight sets and didn’t really look like she was going to win.
“There is clearly a hurdle that we need to pass but she’s been close so many times,” said Mouratoglou. “You have to be as fit as possible, so that’s the plan, and of course mentally there is always this fight against pressure and against yourself, which is part of what tennis is about.”
It was interesting hearing Federer say this week that he thinks he has a “different mindset” to Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal at the moment as they all remain locked on 20 Slams each. It was almost an acknowledgement from Federer that he might not win anymore, and that doesn’t necessarily matter for him. For Williams it feels different. She maybe doesn’t need to win a 24th Slam for validation, but she has been chasing it for so long that it feels like she may need it for the perfect closure to her career.
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