Can Serena bounce back at 34?

Most forceful talent in women’s game faces uncertain future

Upsets happen and t he unpredictability of sport is the quality that ensures it will always remain entertaining. However, from the start of Serena Williams’ attempt to complete the calendar Grand Slam at the US Open, it always appeared to be a perilous quest. Now her dreams of creating history have been shattered so alarmingly, where does she go from here? She’s already confirmed as this year’s world No 1 and she’s done that four times. All that’s left is statistics such as winning one more major to equal Steffi Graf’s haul of 22, or getting closer to Margaret Court’s 24. I’m not sure any of the top performers play just to better a number.

Can she rebound to win another major title after failing to beat Roberta Vinci, a player she’d never lost to before? Is she sufficiently motivated to maintain the brutal training regime necessary to stay at the top at the age of 34 and with lots of disposable income? Is tennis that important to her after winning pretty everything the sport has to offer? These are questions she must ask herself in the weeks ahead and the most important thing is for her to get away from the sport, store away the rackets, go on an extended holiday, and work out her priorities. During that break, she might decide there are other things she wants to do.

I wouldn’t be surprised if she does not hit another competitive ball until the WTA Finals close the year in Singapore. And then what? Will she contend for another clean sweep next year? I doubt it. Is the lure of an Olympic gold medal or two in Rio de Janeiro something that will keep her going? Well, it’s a possibility, but it will take some sacrifices and I wonder whether Serena is sufficiently in love with the game.

Two weeks ago, I wrote of her complex personality, the way she worried about her public perception, and the fact that success does not come easy to her. I said then that the only player capable of consistently beating Serena is herself. I stand by everything I said.

Serena is not universally popular. At the start of this US Open, I was at my tennis academy on the Caribbean island of St Vincent and watching her play her first match on a big outdoor TV screen. The support for her was immense, but I’ve also been in VIP areas at some of the sport’s most prestigious tournaments and there has been jubilation when she’s lost. She knows that and she’s told me it hurts. In a perfect ‘Serena World’, she would be as collectively loved as Roger Federer, Chris Evert or Steffi Graf, but that’s never going to happen because of some of the tantrums she’s had on court such as verbally abusing the line judge or that blow up with the umpire at US Opens in recent years.

So she creates a self-defence mechanism and, after her defeat by Vinci, I heard her insist that she never felt any pressure. She has a funny way of showing it because, in those last few games against Vinci, she bore all the hallmarks of somebody struggling with the inner demons telling her she wasn’t good enough. You could see it in her body language and the way she struggled to move properly on court.

This was Arthur Ashe stadium in New York, where she had dominated with three successive titles and where she produced some of her greatest performance. It’s the court where she won her first major title at 17. Probably her most secure spot in the tennis world and yet she disintegrated with alarming effect against a player she crushed a couple of weeks ago on a similar surface in Toronto.

Many people believed it was a foregone conclusion that Serena would complete the set of major titles this year, but I wasn’t so sure. Not that I didn’t believe in her ability, because she’s the most forceful woman ever to have hit a tennis ball. But her inner anxieties were always going to be multiplied in times of extreme stress.

It’s been said many times that being beaten in a semifinal is much tougher than going out in the early rounds and to come so close to achieving something special but falling short is agonising.

Williams didn’t hit a consistent level throughout the US Open and although she’s had a superb year in the majors, she’s been lucky to get out of some tight situations. However, she lost to Roberta Vinci because she created her own pressure. How much longer does she want to live with that burden? Take a break Serena and decide what you really want to do over the next few years.