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Serena Williams at Wimbledon in July 2015. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Serena Williams at Wimbledon in July 2015. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Wimbledon: Serena Williams’ challengers

There are a few pretenders to the throne, but the queen still reigns supreme

Roberta Vinci. Angelique Kerber. Garbiñe Muguruza. Three women who could easily have been side notes in the record books somehow found a way to halt the march of history.

By winning Wimbledon last year, Serena Williams, for the second time in her career, held all the four tennis majors. The “Serena Slam" done, the world was at her feet and Steffi Graf’s record of 22 Grand Slams—the most number of singles Slams in the Open Era, which started in 1968—well within her sight.

After Wimbledon 2015, she had a 21-4 win-loss record in Grand Slam finals. A calendar Slam was waiting at the US Open, her home major.

Serena Williams doesn’t do nervous on the big stage. But once on the threshold of history, she faltered. Once, twice, thrice.

Vinci, a diminutive Italian who makes a living mainly through doubles, mixed it up wisely to beat Williams in the semi-finals of the 2015 US Open. Kerber transformed herself into a metaphorical wall in the final of the Australian Open to grind the American down. Muguruza simply out-hit Williams in the French Open final to take the crown in straight sets.

“Every time I walk into this room, everyone expects me to win every single match, every single day of my life," Williams said at the post-match press conference after her defeat against Kerber in Melbourne.

“As much as I would like to be a robot, I’m not. I try to (be). I do the best I can. I try to win every match, every single point, when I walk on to the court. But I can’t. Maybe someone else can."

At 34, Williams is an ageing champion. It is not an adjective that follows her as readily as it does someone like Roger Federer. She is still the biggest force to reckon with in women’s tennis, the current world No.1 and the favourite to win any tournament she chooses to enter. But in a body afflicted with niggles, years of workload, lack of match time (she has played only five events so far this year) and the burden of history, Williams may be the most vulnerable she has been in the past couple of years.

“Serena has not been as efficient as she usually is since last summer," says her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, in an email interview. “She doesn’t have that little extra that makes her the champion she is. It (chasing Graf’s record) obviously played a role. But I also think that Serena forgot who she is, she forgot that she is unique and that whatever the situation is, she has the key to victory. She has realized she will now be better in the next tournaments."

Three successive defeats at the business end of the majors, though, is bound to have an impact on the mood of the locker room.

“The girls will start to believe, at least a little bit, that they can win against her," says Petar Popovic, a former Serbian player who has coached the likes of Andrea Petkovic on the women’s tour, on email. “Ninety-nine per cent of the girls, even if they have a chance to beat her when she is on a bad day, which everyone has, get stressed and show too much respect. They need to just play like she’s human."

Come Wimbledon, Williams will begin the defence of the only title she currently holds. And the challengers to the throne are already lining up.

As world No.2 and her most recent conquerer, Muguruza is at the top of the chasing pack.

“She played to win," was how Williams simply described Muguruza’s approach to the French Open final this year. The Spanish player had closed it with one of the most incredible shots ever hit on Championship point at Wimbledon, a lob that landed right on the line. Williams was gracious enough to smile and applaud her opponent’s bravery.

Playing in an age when defence is the byword, Muguruza has the courage to go for a winner, usually hitting flat and furious, on every shot. And by winning the French Open, she showed that she can bring it together on the biggest stage against the toughest rival.

“She (Muguruza) is not affected by Serena’s power," Rob Steckley, who coaches 2015 French Open finalist Lucie Safarova, says on phone. “She strikes with such force behind each ball and is always looking to play early, which Serena has a more difficult time with as she is used to being able to dictate, whether she is serving or returning. Muguruza’s also a great mover and reads plays extremely well, has the hunger and, now, the belief."

Muguruza’s game, as spectacularly ruthless as it can be, often runs the risk of being reckless. She went off the boil after making it to the Wimbledon final last year and has a 22-9 win-loss record in 2016. The hard-working Kerber too has been able to win only one title since her Australian Open triumph and went out in the first round of the French Open.

“It shows how difficult it is to confirm good results," adds Mouratoglou, who is widely seen as one of the major factors behind Williams’ consistency and focus in the past three years.

The one player who has consistently come close to Williams in the past five years is Victoria Azarenka.

The 26-year-old Belarussian is a blend of power and fortitude. A former world No.1, she has two Australian Open titles (2012, 2013) to her name and has reached at least the semi-finals at each of the Grand Slams. She is a relentless competitor, known to stretch the boundaries of sportsmanship every once in a while. Currently ranked No.6 in the world, Azarenka most recently defeated Williams at Indian Wells—6-4, 6-4—in the final.

In the aftermath of Williams’ stunning 2015 season, when she won three of the four Grand Slams, her one-time rival Justine Henin had said Williams was benefitting because “everyone is playing a little bit of the same game". But the exception to that rule is Simona Halep.

“I like Halep because I think she plays a little bit differently. She can do a high ball if she is in defence; she can use slice; she can try to come to the net," Henin, the seven-time Grand Slam champion, had said during an 2015 interview with ESPN.

The 24-year-old Romanian is already a proven performer. Only 5ft, 6 inches, Halep is one of the shortest players on the tour and is self-admittedly in the Henin mould. Though she does not quite have Henin’s grace, poise and variety yet, she has won 12 Women’s Tennis Association titles and made it to the finals at Roland-Garros and the year-ending WTA finals in 2014.

While players such as Petra Kvitová, who won Wimbledon in 2011 and 2014, Agnieszka Radwanska and former world No.1 Caroline Wozniacki are constant contenders in Grand Slams, the future of women’s tennis after Williams lies in its younger stars. Leading the young brigade is Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic, who, at 19, is the youngest player in the top 10. She has found her moments in the sun already. At the 2015 Rogers Cup, she beat four top 10 players, including Williams, to take the title.

“I also think that Madison Keys can be dangerous," says Mouratoglou. Keys, a 21-year-old American, is slated to break into the top 10 for the first time on 27 June. “She hasn’t yet found a mental balance to be able to be consistent enough, but she is definitely someone who can win Grand Slams because she is able to hit winners from any part of the court and has a very good serve."

What the younger generation also does not have is the scars of big defeats.

“The young guns definitely have a ton of potential and they don’t overthink as much," says Steckley. They are hungry and fearless. Now that the first two Slams of the year have been won by new champions, this is definitely sending the message to all the girls that if they really give their all there (on the court), they have a chance."

And yet winning a Slam may not be enough to succeed Williams. Her calling has been a superhuman staying power. During her time, three of her keen rivals—Kim Clijsters, Henin and Martina Hingis—have retired, made comebacks and then retired again, and she is still the leading lady in the largely chaotic world of women’s tennis.

“(Samantha) Stosur (2013 US Open winner), Kerber and Kvitová won a Grand Slam and struggled a lot in the following months (after winning a Slam)," says Mouratoglou. “What is important to understand is how the pressure affects players, how it enters their minds and blocks their aptitudes. That is one of the big differences between champions and great players. Once a player wins a Slam, she becomes the one to beat and she suddenly feels she has to perform; she is not allowed to lose."

That’s the pressure Williams has played with for most of her career, and she has usually come out on top. She has been the benchmark, a target they all aim for. It may be difficult to take over the No.1 spot from her, but it will be almost impossible to fill her shoes

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