Serena Williams used to have many of her opponents partly beaten before they stepped on the court.
Being not just a mighty tennis player, but a ferocious presence, tended to be intimidating for the WTA’s mere mortals.
Yet the American icon is now fighting her own mental battle. That much is clear, having suffered the personally-unprecedented slump of losing her past four Grand Slam finals, according to fellow US great Jim Courier.
So far, Williams remains one Grand Slam short of equalling Margaret Court’s record of 24 major singles titles. She cut a distraught figure in her latest near-miss, at last year’s US Open. She had an all-time meltdown in the 2018 Flushing Meadows final.
Serena wants that record badly and at age 38, the clock is ticking.
“I think if she gets 24, 25 will be a lot easier,” Courier told Wide World of Sports.
“I think there’s a little bit of a barrier there, from watching her play closely in those four finals, that she’s feeling. Because she’s playing wonderfully to get to the final and then in the final, she hasn’t been able to capture that same form.
“But she’s the greatest. She’ll figure it out. I do think she’ll figure it out.”
Williams’ four unsuccessful finals have all come after giving birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. To have made four finals post-partum is incredible, though she has fallen just short of her earlier dominance. Williams herself doesn’t know why.
She has lost to players far younger than herself: Angelique Kerber (31, seven years younger) in the 2018 Wimbledon final, Naomi Osaka (22, 16 years younger) in the 2018 US Open final, Simona Halep (28, 10 years younger) in last year’s Wimbledon final and Bianca Andreescu (19, 19 years younger) in last year’s US Open final. Andreescu is out of the Australian Open due to a knee injury, but is the only significant absentee.
Former Australian player Sam Groth last month questioned whether Serena’s aura was lost on a younger generation of players.
“It’s a huge advantage, isn’t it, that presence that she brings on and off the court,” Groth said on Nine.
“It’s almost like the generation that came through when Serena was a champion is a little bit afraid of her. But the finals she’s lost recently have been to that younger generation that maybe haven’t been on court through her dominant periods.
“It’s almost like they’re not affected by it. You look at someone like an Osaka or an Andreescu, who beat her in those two US Open finals, there was no sense that they were scared or they were worried about who was on the other side of the court. It was almost like they lifted to that occasion.
“I think that’s going to be one of the big challenges for Serena, that younger generation coming through.”
Williams just broke through for her first title as a mother, taking out the Auckland Classic in her build-up to the Australian Open. It was her 73rd career title and the relief it brought was obvious.
“I’ve been waiting two years for this moment,” Williams said.
“It feels good. It’s been a long time. You can see the relief on my face.”
Whether that early-season form translates to success at Melbourne Park remains to be seen, but the court time could prove valuable.
Injury significantly hampered Williams last year and she played just 31 matches, for a 25-6 record. By contrast, world No.1 Ashleigh Barty played 70 matches. Before Auckland, Serena hadn’t played at a tournament since that US Open final loss to Andreescu in September.
“She’s been so close. Four times she’s made it to the final and four times she hasn’t played her best in the final. So, she’s due,” said Courier, Australian Open champion in 1992-93.
“Playing in New Zealand is a good sign, she’s come down early and she’s going to have two weeks down in the southern hemisphere prior to the start of the Australian Open. She’ll be ready, she’ll be adjusted.
“I expect her to be a strong contender. We know she’s passionate and we know she is very focused on trying to get to No.24.”
The best player that Williams beat in Auckland was world No.25 Amanda Anisimova. She thrashed the American 18-year-old 6-1 6-1, before dispatching US world No.82 Jessica Pegula 6-3 6-4 in the final. She banked five matches, going to three sets in just one; a 3-6 6-2 6-3 win over American Christina McHale.
Even beyond Andreescu’s absence, the Melbourne Park title looks ripe for the picking for Williams, should she overcome her recent demons.
Barty just lost to a qualifier in round one of the Brisbane International. Osaka missed out on a match point against Karolina Pliskova in the Brisbane semis, with the Czech player going on to win the title. World No.5 Elina Svitolina bombed out early in the same tournament.
Halep is yet to play this year. World No.7 Belinda Bencic lost her first match of the year against the world No.58. Last year’s Open finalist and dual Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova made the Brisbane semis, but fellow major winners Angelique Kerber and Sloane Stephens were first-up losers.
Williams is currently ranked world No.9 and has been seeded eighth for the Australian Open. It affords her a decent run to the quarter-finals; not that she’s needed much help.
Her recent finals performances are the only worry. Serena is 23-10 in Grand Slam singles finals and lost just four across 17 years early in her career. She’s now lost six in the past four years and four in the past two years.
Until 2016, Williams had never lost back-to-back major finals. She’s now done it three times.
The Australian Open is tied with Wimbledon as Williams’ most successful Slam, with both yielding seven titles. No.8 at Melbourne Park would be No.24 overall, level with Court, and another tick for Serena’s claims to being the Greatest Of All Time.