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By Chris Oddo | Thursday, July 24, 2014

 
Serena Williams, Miami 2014

After three straight early exits in Grand Slams this year, Serena Williams is no longer the heavy favorite to win in New York. How will she respond?

Photo Source: Christopher Levy

Time takes no prisoners, and the weight of years cannot escape gravity. Serena Williams, one of the most decorated and dominant women to ever pick up a racquet, has never been fond of taking prisoners either, but now as she approaches 33 years of age, time may have her right where it wants her.

More: Four Reasons Why Roger Federer Can Win This Year's U.S. Open

The 17-time Grand Slam champion is in danger of failing to reach the quarterfinals of a major in a year where she played all four events for the first time in 16 years. That was way back in 1998, when Williams was just cutting her teeth on tour as a raw but energetic and rebellious teenager.

In that 16-year span that has seen the legendary career of Williams unfold like a bead-encrusted denim tennis skirt (with pleats) before our very eyes, Williams has had her share of hot and cold streaks. In 2005 and 2006 injuries kept her out of three of eight majors, and she struggled to win at the ones she played, managing only one title in a two-year span.

But a hell-bent Serena, only 25 at the time and eager to forge her reputation as one of the most willful and skillful players in the history of the game, would rally in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 to capture six Slam titles and play in 15 consecutive majors.

Naysayers should have learned then that one must doubt Serena Jameka Williams at their own risk. But they didn’t.

With 13 major titles under her belt, Williams was dealt another, more severe blow to her health in 2011, as a laceration in her foot from a glass bottle eventually lead to a pulmonary embolism, a hematoma and a near-death experience that had many thinking her glory days were behind her.

Naysayers, once again, had Williams’ career finished prematurely. But done and dusted she was not--alive to thrive she was soon to be.

Since those dark days, all Williams has done is recapture the No. 1 ranking (becoming the oldest No. 1 in WTA history, if you’re scoring at home) and gone on a torrid stretch of domination that saw her claim four of six majors in a year and a half stretch from the middle of 2012 to the end of 2013.

During that time, Serena as GOAT was a recurring theme at the end of Grand Slams, when Williams would hold court over an admiring press corps to break down her latest, greatest triumph. Generations had come and gone, and there was Williams, still holding sway over all challengers, knocking them back with her booming serves and bodacious groundies, seemingly in possession of a will so strong and a desire so deep that all she had to do was flick the switch to open the floodgates on even the most threatening adversaries.

Oh, but what a difference a year makes. Nearly a year removed from her last Grand Slam title, Williams is in danger of having the most disappointing year of her career. Sure, she’s had disappointing years before—but those were mainly due to either injuries or ennui. This time, Williams is engaged, Williams is hungry, Williams is determined—but still, things haven’t clicked.

After falling to Ana Ivanovic at the Australian Open, a few eyebrows were raised, but most wrote off the loss because Williams had been having back problems. At Roland Garros, when she was blown off the court in the second round by 20-year-old Garbine Muguruza in what would amount to Williams’ worst-ever loss at a major, all eyes turned to Wimbledon as her potential season-saving proving ground.

“I think there's going to be a lot of pressure on her because she did not do well in the last two Grand Slams, pretty much had bad losses,” Chris Evert said, just prior to this year’s Championships. “I think all eyes are going to be on how she's doing. If she can get through the first week, that's going to be the big thing. Once she gets through the first week, gets the ball rolling, gets more comfortable on the grass, she'll be unbeatable.”

Evert may have been right, but we’ll never know because Williams was shocked by Alize Cornet in the third round at Wimbledon. As good as Williams has been in 2013 (she is tied for the tour lead in titles with three and has a 26-6 record) she has come up flat and fallen in the first week of a Slam to a lower-ranked opponent for the third straight major.

Those in wont of a positive spin might note that it sets up pretty nicely for Serena to drive another nail into the coffin of her naysayers in New York. But those steeped in reality can’t help but notice the facts that are plain to see. The Williams aura is fading, and if she doesn’t put on her invincible mask and rummage her way through the draw at this year’s U.S. Open, Serena Williams' Grand Slam-winning days may very well be over.

As the palpable and pulsating pull of her years have forced her to work ever more diligently to keep her unassailable form, Williams has suffered the fatigue that comes with long stretches of boots-on-the-ground, body-in-the-ice-bath toil. We’ve seen her here before over the course of her brilliant, iconoclastic career, and always she needs time to regroup, to recharge, to find the radiant light and the desire to keep pushing.

But there’s a twist in the plot for Serena Williams in 2014: She has very little time. Just two months shy of her 33rd birthday, Williams must face the harsh reality that only one woman in WTA history (Martina Navratilova) has ever won a Grand Slam title beyond the age of 33. Can Williams buck the trend once again? Oh, you better believe she can.

Will she?

That’s an entirely more complicated question. It’s almost as difficult to answer as the following question: Why has Serena lost her mojo this year?

Statistically, there is only one difference between 2013, a year that saw her dominate and rack up two more major titles, and this season: the return of serve. Williams was ranked third on tour at winning second-serve return points in 2013. In 2014 she’s dropped and isn’t even ranked in the top 10 in that category. As a result she has gone from winning 54 percent of return games in 2013 to winning 47 percent in 2014.

Could that slight statistical anomaly be sabotaging Williams’ season, or are her muted results simply the result of the fact that she is getting to be that age where inconsistency bleeds into and corrupts the games of even the greatest champions?

Or maybe, it’s a combination of both? Whatever the case, it’s clear that Serena Williams has everything to play for at this year’s U.S. Open. She’s one title shy of tying Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert on the all-time major title list, and if she can summon all the magic and fury of her game in New York to win her 18th major, she’ll head into 2015 with her aura intact and the future bright.

On the other hand, if Williams falls victim to another shock upset, naysayers will be hard at work writing her off in the off-season.

These are trying times for Serena Williams. Her legacy is safe, and she will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the five best females to have ever patrolled a baseline. But there is clear and present danger in the here and now—for the first time since she was a wide-eyed teenager, Serena Williams is truly in danger of falling back into the pack instead of being its leader.


 

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