As a Jehovah’s Witness, Serena Williams does not celebrate birthdays. That is probably just as well, given that the American appears to be well aware that she will be passing another milestone next week. “Oh, I don’t celebrate birthdays,” Williams said when asked about her forthcoming 33rd. “No one should after a certain age, right? It’s almost depressing. I think even if I did I would be kind of trying not to at this point, trying to forget it.”
As the oldest women’s world No 1 in history continued her preparations for next week’s US Open, she was bombarded with reminders about the passing of time. Sloane Stephens, the 21-year-old seen by many as Williams’ natural successor as American No 1, practised on an adjoining court in the morning. At noon Williams attended the draw, in which she was paired in the first round with 18-year-old Taylor Townsend, arguably the most promising of all the young Americans. In the afternoon Williams took part in a coaching clinic for youngsters from a nearby community centre.
Although she jokes that “32 is the new 22”, there have been times this year when age appeared to be catching up with Williams. Despite being a long way clear of all her rivals at the top of the world rankings, she has had a poor year in Grand Slam tournaments, losing in the fourth round at the Australian Open, the second round at Roland Garros and the third round at Wimbledon.
After Wimbledon, in particular, there were widespread doubts about the American’s future. Having lost to Alize Cornet in the singles, Williams then retired mid-match in the doubles in worrying circumstances as she was barely able to hit the ball over the net. A virus was given as the official reason, after which Williams was said to have been confined to bed for three days and initially advised by doctors not to fly home. She was later reported to have said she would have tests “for things that do run in the family”. Williams’ sister, Venus, suffers from Sjogren’s syndrome, an incurable auto-immune disease.
Remarkably, however, Williams has gone on to enjoy a very successful summer, winning two of the three tournaments in which she has competed on the hard-court circuit. Having secured top spot in the US Open Series, which brings together the tournaments in the build-up to the year’s final Grand Slam event, she will earn a record $4m (about £2.4m), including a $1m (£603,000) bonus, if she makes a successful defence of her title here.
Williams described her form in Cincinnati, where she won the title last weekend, as her best this year and “definitely a level that could take me to the [US Open] title”. As for her fitness, Williams said: “I’m in some of the best shape I’ve been in. I can play long points and be ready to go again. I feel really fit.”
After some of her difficulties earlier this year there was inevitably speculation that Williams might turn to a new coach, but she insisted she was still committed to working with Patrick Mouratoglou. “We have a great relationship,” she said. “It’s been a great run. It’s a great challenge. We both love challenges. We want to continue, to just keep going.”
Williams has always made the Grand Slam tournaments her priority and is ready to focus on the major events even more in the future. “That’s something me and Patrick have been talking about a lot,” she said. “It’s his suggestion, and I think it makes a lot of sense. At the end of the day I definitely want to be able to win majors and then just pick and choose really carefully around the tournaments.”
Victory here would take Williams to 18 Grand Slam titles, which would put her level with Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, with only Margaret Court (24 titles), Steffi Graf (22) and Helen Wills Moody (19) ahead of her.
Williams was asked whether the thought of equalling Navratilova and Evert played on her mind. “For sure you think about it,” she said. “Everyone talks about it every time I step into a press conference, so even if I’m not thinking about it, it’s like: ‘I’m going to have to now.’ But I’ve been going for No 18 all year and it hasn’t happened. Eventually maybe I’ll get it. We’ll see.”
As for the immediate challenge here, where she will be attempting to win the title for the third year in a row and the sixth time in total, Williams insisted that her Grand Slam disappointments earlier this year could prove to be to her advantage.
“I almost feel like the pressure is lifted because I haven’t performed the way I’ve wanted to personally,” she said. “I don’t feel a ton of pressure going into the Open. I almost feel like it’s lifted.”