There cannot be many races with a 128-strong field and an odds-on favourite, but then again the world has not produced many tennis players like Serena Williams. If you consider the 32-year-old American's record over the past 18 months, some of her rivals must be wondering why they have bothered to turn up at the Australian Open, which begins here tomorrow.
Although she has not won here since 2010, the gap is due almost exclusively to injuries and illness. "I just wasn't able to stay on two feet, literally," she said here yesterday. "So this year I've been doing a lot of exercises for my ankles, trying to make sure that they're pretty stabilised to get used to this."
At an age when some players might be contemplating putting away their rackets for good – Steffi Graf and Helen Wills Moody, two of the five players ahead of Williams on the all-time list of Grand Slam title-winners, retired at the ages of 30 and 32 respectively – the world No 1's domination seems to grow with every year. Since the 2012 French Open, Williams has played in 21 tournaments and won 16 of them.
If she maintains her current rate of two Grand Slam titles a year, it will not be long before Williams's right to be regarded as the greatest woman player of all time will be unquestioned. If she wins two more Grand Slam trophies in 2014, which would take her total to 19, Williams would move ahead of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, and would have only Margaret Court (24) and Graf (22) in front of her.
"It would mean a lot to be on the same level as such great players as Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova," Williams said yesterday. "I still have a lot of work to do. I obviously want to be able to reach that level, but I'm not there yet."
Williams has enjoyed remarkable longevity. The gap between her first and most recent Grand Slam titles – the 1999 and 2013 US Opens – is the longest of any female player in the Open era. She is also the oldest woman to be world No 1.
There have been three distinct Williams eras: 1999 to 2003, when she won six Grand Slam titles and did the "Serena Slam" (holding all four titles at the same time); late 2003 to the summer of 2008, when she won only two Grand Slam titles and struggled with fitness; and the period since Wimbledon 2008, during which she has won nine of the 18 Grand Slam tournaments in which she has competed. One of the reasons why she has stayed at the top for so long is that she has relatively few miles on the clock.
Her father, Richard, who has coached her throughout her life, did not believe it was in the interests of Serena or her sister Venus to play on the international junior circuit. As a senior, Williams has also limited her appearances on the main tour, which is underlined by the high proportion of Grand Slam titles in her career tally. Navratilova, Evert and Graf won a total of 167, 154 and 107 singles titles respectively, of which 18, 18 and 22 were at Grand Slam level; Williams has won "only" 58, of which 17 are Grand Slam titles.
"At the age of 30 she had played about half the tournaments that I had played at 30, so she is fresh in tennis terms," Navratilova said, adding that she expected Williams to win more than 20 Grand Slam titles. "She is eager, and winning is very contagious. Once you get really used to it, you don't want to let go of it."
The French coach Patrick Mouratoglou, to whom Williams turned two summers ago, has clearly been a factor in extending the American's career. Her father, however, remains a key figure. Williams spent most of the off season training with him in Florida.
"I love working with my father because for me he's the most unbelievable coach in the world," Williams said. "I definitely feel motivated. I don't know why. Why am I training so hard in Florida with my dad? Why am I doing this so many years later? I can't stop. I love it. I love being out here. I love competing. It gives me something to do, and I just love the competition. So for me it's just about motivating myself and trying to reach new goals."
Mouratoglou has not tried to change Williams. "I think that her parents created a, how can I say, a machine," he said. "So you just have to show her how to use the key of the machine, and if she uses the key I think she's the best player in the world. There is no discussion."
The coaching combination of Mouratoglou, whose father is one of the richest men in France, and Williams, who taught his children tennis on public courts in California littered with drug addicts' syringes to the background noise of gunfire from drive-by shootings, is an unlikely one, but it works. "My dad has been there for me since day one," Williams said. "He's always so positive on the court.
"Patrick is too, but my dad definitely gives me more direction. Patrick has me figuring things out on my own.
"I think both ways work really well, but ultimately they both say the same thing. The reason I'm able to work with Patrick is because he's not going against anything that my father has told me to do."
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