Serena Williams has found herself on the precipice of a record-equaling 22nd grand slam title for nearly a year, but getting over that final hurdle has proved trying for the now-34-year-old American star.
Williams claimed her 21nd major title when she won at Wimbledon for the sixth time last year, a tally that is just one short of the Open Era record currently held by Steffi Graf.
The Wimbledon title in 2015 handed her another ‘Serena Slam’ – holding all four grand slam titles simultaneously – but since then, things have gone somewhat awry for Williams.
She was denied a shot at the calendar year Grand Slam – another feat last managed by Graf (in 1988) – when she surprisingly lost to Italian veteran Roberta Vinci in the final of the US Open and in the aftermath of that utterly disappointing defeat, hasn’t quite looked herself in recent times.
Williams reached the finals at the Australian Open and Roland Garros, where narrow defeats to Germany’s Angelique Kerber and Spain’s Garbine Muguruza respectively came as a bit of a surprise for many of her fans and critics alike.
“Something is holding her back, and it could be nerves,” 18-time grand slam champion Chris Evert said of her compatriot.
“Especially against Kerber and Muguruza, she wasn’t able to dig herself out of the hole like she has in past years.
“She’s been famous for finding that next gear, that next level, when she’s down.”
Three-time Wimbledon champion John McEnroe is confident that Williams will win her seventh All England Club crown in a fortnight’s time, but added that the pressure is certainly mounting on her, particularly since she chasing pack on the women’s rankings have closed the gap on her significantly in recent times.
“There’s not that many people that wouldn’t pick her here. If she’s playing well, she’ll win the tournament,” McEnroe said.
“Of the challengers, they come in two distinct categories: The power hitters such as Spain’s Muguruza, twice champion Petra Kvitova, former world number one and rising American Madison Keys. Sadly Victoria Azarenka withdrew with injury.
“Then there are the scramblers like world number three Agnieszka Radwanska, Kerber and Simona Halep.”
While Kvitova is a legitimate threat having won the title in 2011 and 2014, but it is Muguruza – the runner-up at SW19 in 2015 – that is seen as the real heir to Williams’ throne.
Arguably the biggest test for the 22-year-old Roland Garros champion – whose fearless display of power hitting proved too much for Williams in the Paris final – can make the transition from slow clay courts to the fast grass of London.
“I’m curious to see how she does that,” Evert continued.
In the absence of Azarenka – a two-time Australian Open champion – Keys has become an outside favourite to win the title. The ninth seed reached the last eight in 2015 and won the Birmingham title ahead of this year’s tournament at the All England Club.
Evert certainly agrees.
“This girl can play on grass. Her serve I think matches Serena’s,” Evert said.
“I think she’s going to win some majors. I don’t have any doubt in my mind.”