New York — Serena Williams stopped hiding from history and started making more of it.
Up until a couple of years ago, she practically plugged her ears at any mention of records or firsts. Now she says it out loud: Coming into the U.S. Open, her next goal is matching two tennis greats for the second-most major titles in the Open era with 18.
“Obviously just getting closer to tying with Chris (Evert) and Martina (Navratilova),” she said.
Then she added: “But been doing that all year and still hasn’t happened. Not going to stress out about it anymore.”
Williams has been stuck on 17 since winning the U.S. Open a year ago. When she started working with coach Patrick Mouratoglou in mid-2012, he urged her to embrace the record chase. Williams went on to capture four of the next six Grand Slam titles, an Olympic gold medal and two straight WTA Championships in a scintillating 16-month run.
But in the first three major tournaments of 2014, she didn’t even make the quarterfinals. Her last appearance on the Grand Slam stage took a bizarre turn when an out-of-sorts Williams pulled out of a Wimbledon doubles match, blaming a viral illness.
Evert, for one, figured she’d be looking up at Williams by now. Or that maybe Williams would be chasing Steffi Graf’s Open-era record of 22 major titles.
Evert won her 18th and final major title at 31, the same age Williams was when she played at Flushing Meadows in 2013. Motivation gets harder with time because of the mental fatigue season after season.
“You just are not as fresh,” Evert said. “Some days you just don’t want to get out of bed.”
For all that, Williams still has to rate as the heavy favorite at Flushing Meadows when the year’s last major tournament starts Monday. She’s seeking to join Evert as the only women to win three straight titles here in the Open era, which began in 1968. Williams is seeded No. 1 in New York for just the third time, a surprisingly low number for someone who has been the world’s top-ranked player for 204 weeks in her career. The two previous times, she won the championship.
Williams’ five titles in 2014 are the most on the WTA tour; nobody else has more than three. Over the last seven Grand Slam events, the five titles not won by Williams went to five different players, and two of them won’t be at Flushing Meadows: the retired Marion Bartoli and the injured Li Na.
Five-time major champ Maria Sharapova makes by far the best case to fill the void, but she hasn’t looked that sharp since winning her second French Open title in June.
Petra Kvitova is coming off her victory at Wimbledon, but she’s always struggled at Flushing Meadows — never even reaching the quarterfinals. After her first Wimbledon title in 2011, she promptly lost in the first round at the U.S. Open.
And Victoria Azarenka, the runner-up to Williams the last two years, has been stymied by injuries all season.
This state of affairs isn’t too uncommon on the women’s side in recent years. What’s unusual is the men’s draw looks a bit similar. With Rafael Nadal unable to defend his title because of a wrist injury, the top players come in uncharacteristically shaky.
After winning Wimbledon and getting married, top-seeded Novak Djokovic was, in his own words, “emotionally a little bit flat” in losing early in two hard-court tournaments.
“I was a bit slow, I have to say, to get into the competition mode,” Djokovic said. “It was a very unique five, six weeks that I had with the wedding and winning Wimbledon and getting back to No. 1 in the world. I couldn’t ask for more. I was extremely fulfilled and happy with where I am in my life.”
Meanwhile, Andy Murray has yet to rediscover his championship form after back surgery. Perhaps this is 33-year-old Roger Federer’s last, best chance to win another major title.
For more than two years, he’s been stuck on No. 17 — a number Williams is also all too familiar with.