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By Richard Pagliaro | Thursday January 12, 2017

 
Serena Williams

"I don't think it's a matter of if she's going to win another Grand Slam, I think it's when, and I think it will happen this year," says Chrissie Evert of Serena Williams.

Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve

The ring on her finger and number next to her name signify Serena Williams’ life-changing journey over the past year.

The 35-year-old Williams has found personal joy and fulfillment with her engagement to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, while finding herself in the unfamiliar position of world No. 2 looking up to top-ranked Angelique Kerber.

Evert: Sharapova Can Return To Top 5

One of the top questions ahead of next week's Australian Open is this: Will a happy Serena make history at the Happy Slam and capture an Open Era-record 23rd Grand Slam championship?

“I don't think it's a matter of if she's going to win another Grand Slam, I think it's when, and I think it will happen this year,” 18-time Grand Slam champion and ESPN analyst Chrissie Evert told the media in a conference call to promote ESPN’s Australian Open coverage starting Sunday night.

Still, questions surround Serena, who looked indecisive and out of sorts committing an eye-popping 88 unforced errors in a 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-4 loss to No. 72 Madison Brengle in Auckland last week.

The owner of 71 WTA titles will try to shake off the rust that comes from playing just two matches during the past four months. The seven-time Australian Open champion faces major challenges.

A year ago, Williams showed some signs of vulnerability losing back-to-back Grand Slam finals in Melbourne and Paris for the first time in her career.

Four of her six losses in 2016 came to opponents ranked outside the Top 10, she was pained by knee and shoulder injuries, sometimes looked reluctant to fully unload her vaunted serve and pulled the plug on her season after a US Open straight-sets semifinal loss to Karolina Pliskova.

Yet Williams also showed her trademark resolve and fierce desire bouncing back from a disappointing French Open final loss to Garbine Muguruza and playing perhaps her finest match of the season conquering Kerber, 7-5, 6-3, to win Wimbledon. She contested the finals in five of her eight tournament starts last season.

Hall of Famer Evert believes Williams’ fall to No. 2 in the rankings—rather than an impending walk down the aisle—will inspire her to snare another Slam breaking the Open Era-record she shares with Steffi Graf.

“Serena had a long break, took the fall off. I'm sure, knowing her, you can only do so many appearances, endorsements,” Evert said. “She was chomping at the bit to get back competing. I think it's motivation for her she's ranked No. 2. This is a woman with pride and ego and used to being No. 1, used to being the queen at the top.

"I'm sure that's going to be motivation for her, not liking to see another name up there. So if she's healthy, she's happy, I don't worry about the fact that she already lost a match, because basically she needs a couple matches to really get into it.

Evert, who was once engaged to fellow former No. 1 Jimmy Connors and later married fellow pro John Lloyd, understands how relationships can impact careers.

The seven-time Roland Garros champion says it’s tough to predict if Williams’ engagement will create calm or drive distraction in her season.

“You can't predict when somebody gets engaged,” Evert said. “It can go one of two ways. It can be a very pleasant distraction. You can lose your focus a little bit at the task at hand. Or it can be so inspiring, you feel so good, that you're more settled. You really are in a really good place emotionally, and your tennis can improve."

Williams has reached the final in seven of her last nine Grand Slam appearances. She's won a record nine Grand Slam titles since celebrating her 30th birthday though her 2015 Melbourne triumph is the only Australian Open crown she's won as a 30-something.

Serena Williams

How will her 35-year-old body handle the sometime swelter of Melbourne? Evert believes health and happiness are key to Williams attaining her major goals.


"We've seen it both ways in tennis players," Evert said. "I don't think we can predict that. In saying that, you know, the one good thing coming into the year, Serena seems to be healthy. She was fighting all kinds of things. If it wasn't one thing, it was another. The shoulder. If it wasn't the shoulder, it was something else.”

ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe asserts recent injury-induced inactivity makes Serena more vulnerable to an early-round exit in Melbourne, but believes if she withstands first-week challenges she will contend in the end.  

“I don't think the engagement will have anything to do with how Serena does,” McEnroe told the media. “I'll add to what Chrissie said. I think because of how little she played, this happened last year as well, she made it to the final, or the year before, she'll be susceptible early in the tournament because of that.

"If she can get through the first couple of rounds, then obviously she'll be fine, I would expect.”


 

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