LONDON – Nothing drives Serena Williams the way disappointment does.
“It’s the biggest factor for me. Like, if I lose, all hell breaks loose, literally. Literally! I go home, I practice harder, I do more,” she said. “I don’t like to lose. ... I hate losing more than I love winning. It could be a game of cards – I don’t like it. I really don’t like it.”
Well, the way Williams has been playing tennis lately, there’s been very little not to like. When Wimbledon starts Monday, she will be an overwhelming favorite to win her sixth title at the All England Club and second in a row. Williams enters the grass-court Grand Slam tournament 43-2 in 2013 and on a 31-match winning streak, the longest on the women’s tour in a single season in 13 years.
“It happens in sports: You’re going to lose. I learned that you’re not going to win all of them. And there have been a few matches that I wasn’t disappointed in,” said Williams, who at 31 is the oldest player to be ranked No. 1 in WTA history.
“But there were some that I was disappointed in,” she said, “and it’s actually helped me to get better.”
Case in point: A little more than a year ago, Williams arrived at the French Open unbeaten for the season on red clay and anticipating a charge at the title. Instead, she lost in the first round, the only opening-match exit from a major tournament in her career.
“It really was a shock for her. She really worked on rebuilding herself to become perhaps stronger than ever,” said Patrick Mouratoglou, the French coach who began collaborating with Williams shortly after that defeat.
“The more you eat, the hungrier you get,” Mouratoglou said. “When you win, when you achieve the exceptional, you don’t want it to stop.”
Since that dark day at Roland Garros, Williams is 74-3, including trophies at three of the last four Slams and the WTA Championships, plus gold at the London Olympics.
That run of nearly uninterrupted success began 12 months ago at Wimbledon and most recently resulted in her first French Open championship in 11 years, with a straight-set victory over defending champion Maria Sharapova. That was Williams’ 13th consecutive win against Sharapova; their rivalry took a nasty off-court turn Saturday, when Sharapova’s pre-Wimbledon news conference included a verbal shot at Williams.
Sharapova was asked about a recent Rolling Stone article where the author surmised that critical comments by Williams directed at an unnamed, top-five player were referring to Sharapova. Williams is quoted as saying: “She begins every interview with ‘I’m so happy. I’m so lucky’ – it’s so boring. She’s still not going to be invited to the cool parties. And, hey, if she wants to be with the guy with a black heart, go for it.”
“At the end of the day, we have a tremendous amount of respect for what we do on the court,” Sharapova said Saturday. “I just think she should be talking about her accomplishments, her achievements, rather than everything else that’s just getting attention and controversy.”
Williams has been linked to Mouratoglou, but neither has confirmed their relationship extends beyond tennis. When Mouratoglou was asked about the topic at the French Open, he smiled and replied: “Sorry. I don’t understand the question.”
Between the lines, given the way Williams’ best-in-the-game serve and generally dangerous strokes only get better on the slick grass, it’s difficult to pick against her during the upcoming fortnight.
There are four men, meanwhile, who all have real reason to like their chances, a quartet that’s combined to collect 32 of the last 33 Grand Slam tournaments: defending champion Roger Federer, owner of a record 17 Grand Slam titles, including seven at Wimbledon; No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic, who won Wimbledon in 2011; two-time champion Rafael Nadal, whose record eighth French Open trophy this month raised his career haul to 12 major titles; and Andy Murray, the runner-up last year at the All England Club and reigning U.S. Open champion who wants to give Britain its first male title winner at Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936.
Federer and Nadal could meet in the quarterfinals, with the winner potentially getting Murray in the semifinals, because all three wound up on the same side of the draw. Djokovic, meanwhile, is on the other half and at most would need to beat only one of that other trio to earn the championship.
“Some people would say that I was lucky with the draw,” Djokovic said Saturday. “But look, you know, it’s a Grand Slam, so I don’t think that there is any easy way to the title.”
Williams, though, stands alone atop the women’s game at the moment.
Her serve, which she can consistently hit at more than 120 mph (190 kph), clearly is unrivaled, and she leads the tour this season in aces, service games won, break points saved and first serve points won. Her return is terrific, too, and Williams leads the way in first serve return points won, while ranking second in return games won.
“I don’t see a weakness,” three-time Wimbledon champion John McEnroe said. “She’s playing the best tennis of her career. She’s not only in the best place I’ve ever seen, I think she’s the best player that’s ever lived. I said that a while ago, but she’s cementing it in everyone’s mind. She’s just a level above anyone. There’s no doubt about it.”
Chris Evert also knows a thing or two about winning Grand Slam titles. Her total of 18 is tied with Martina Navratilova for the fourth-most in history; it’s also two more than Williams has right now, but even Evert acknowledges that gap probably will not last much longer.
Ask Evert how a player should try to beat Williams on a grass court, and the question is met with a lengthy pause. Then comes Evert’s scouting report, which begins with the ominous-sounding warning that unless an opponent serves very, very well, Williams is liable to win 6-0, 6-0.
Evert goes on to suggest standing close to the service line for returns and chipping the ball back, perhaps luring Williams forward.
“She beats everybody in the world from the baseline, but nobody’s really tried bringing her in, forcing her to come in. As good a volleyer as she is because of doubles, she’s still not as comfortable at the net as she is on the baseline. I would take off some of the pace,” said Evert, who will join McEnroe as an ESPN analyst during Wimbledon.
“You really can’t hit with her from the baseline,” Evert continued. “You’ve got to either hit short angles, drop shots, chip – do something to throw her timing off. Once she gets in a rhythm, she’s deadly. But you’ve got to have a big serve. You have to be able to hold your serve most of the time. You can’t be just slugging balls with her. That’s been proven a thousand, million times: It doesn’t work.”
Little works these days against Williams, who might be as formidable now as she was at the height of her powers, more than a decade ago, when she won four consecutive major titles for a self-styled “Serena Slam” in 2002-03.
Williams beat her older sister in each of the finals during that stretch; Venus pulled out of this year’s Wimbledon because of a lower back injury Tuesday, a day after her 33rd birthday.
It’s the latest setback for the elder Williams, who has lost in the first round at two of the last four major tournaments. As Serena’s dominance increases, Venus could be nearing the end of her playing days, which have become more complicated because of the energy-sapping autoimmune disease she revealed in 2011.
“What’s happened with her sister, the difficulties she’s had as she’s gotten into the later stages of her career, actually in a way helped Serena, because it made her realize she wanted to enjoy and take advantage of these last couple years,” McEnroe said. “She realized, and maybe appreciated a little bit more, the talent that she has.”