Serena Williams and the elusive 24th Grand Slam

At 37, soon to be 38, Serena Williams is one of the oldest players competing in the slams, next only to her 39-year-old sister Venus.

Serena Williams’ last Slam win was at the Australian Open in 2017, where she defeated her sister Venus Williams.   -  Getty Images

For Serena Williams, the Alpha female of tennis, it has been a long wait for the 24th Grand Slam, which has been eluding her every time she makes the final lunge.

Millions of Serena fans around the world are wondering what is stopping Serena from clinching that one title which would enable her to equal Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Singles Slam wins (11 of which were in the Open Era).

Serena’s last Slam win was at the Australian Open in 2017, where she defeated her sister Venus Williams. And this, when Serena was about eight to nine weeks pregnant with her daughter. The 2017 win created the record for the most singles slam titles by any tennis player in the Open Era, surpassing Steffi Graf’s tally of 22.

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Serena did not have an easy delivery in September 2017. She suffered pulmonary embolism during labour and another pulmonary embolism after giving birth through caesarean section, which left her bedridden for six weeks. This delayed the recovery process and she finally returned to competitive tennis in February 2018.

Her post maternity phase in competitive tennis has been a chequered one. The high points being when she reached the finals of the 2018 Wimbledon and US Open and repeating that in 2019. However, she lost in all the four finals, each time to a different player. If Serena has had long streaks of winning Grand Slams, then this was probably one of her longest losing streaks in the finals.

At 37, soon to be 38, Serena is one of the oldest players competing in the slams, next only to her 39-year-old sister Venus. However, I don’t think age is a deterrent for Serena, even though each of the other four finalists were much younger, with Bianca being the youngest at just nineteen. Serena has won ten Grand Slam singles titles after turning thirty. This is a record by itself. The fact that she made it to two Grand Slam finals at the age of 36 and another two at 37, speaks volumes about how she overcame the age barrier.

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Was it the psychological pressure of creating history that weighed down Serena at the finishing line? Or was it the outstanding abilities of her opponents in the finals?

My personal view is that there are multiple reasons for Serena faltering in the summit clashes, not just one.

1. Physical fitness and athleticism: Serena has displayed superhuman effort in overcoming her pregnancy induced health problems and returning to top level fitness. However, her opponent in each of these last four finals was more fitter and nimble-footed compared with her. In the 2019 US Open final, she appeared to be breathing heavily and panting. Her body  weight needs to drop considerably and on-court athleticism too needs improvement in order to overcome opponents who are quicker than her on the court.

2. Form: Serena managed to overcome her opponents in the first six rounds, however, her rivals in each of the finals played their best tennis. They improved with every single round and came well prepared into the finals, knowing that only top quality tennis in terms of serve, return and tactical play would help them to beat Serena. When her opponents raised the level of their game, Serena was not able to match them with a superior performance.

3. Self-belief: Her opponents knew that it would never be easy to defeat Serena, but also believed that she was not invincible. Of the four - Angelique Kerber, Naomi Osaka and Simona Halep had played against her earlier. For Bianca Andreescu, it was her very first meeting with Serena in the 2019 US Open final, but it didn't overwhelm the Canadian. The unflinching belief that each of her opponents had in their own ability, helped them to overcome the high pressure moments. On the other hand, Serena saw herself buckling under pressure whenever the tide of points flowed against her.

4. The psychological pressure of creating history: Serena was weighed down by the expectation and the hunger to win the 24th Grand Slam. The deafening cheers and the overwhelming support of her fans at the finals motivated her, but were not enough to crush any of her opponents. On the other hand, her opponents in the finals had nothing to lose and played under no pressure.

So, what next? Can Serena clinch the 24th Grand Slam and equal Margaret Court’s record?

I believe she can. But time is running out. She needs to get there within the next two years, before she turns forty — with tennis throwing up highly talented players consistently.

And if at all she fails to equal or surpass Margaret Court’s record, Serena will still be remembered as one of the greatest players ever in the Open Era who redefined the boundaries of the game in terms of power, athleticism and consistency.