NEW YORK – Serena Williams stopped hiding from history and started making more of it.
Up until a couple of years ago, she practically plugged her ears at any mention of records or firsts. Now she says it out loud: Coming into the U.S. Open, which starts Monday, her next goal is matching two tennis greats for the second-most major titles in the Open era with 18.
“Obviously just getting closer to tying with Chris (Evert) and Martina (Navratilova),” she said.
Then Williams added: “But been doing that all year and still hasn’t happened. Not going to stress out about it anymore.”
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Williams, ranked No. 1 in the world, has been stuck on 17 majors since winning the U.S. Open a year ago. When she started working with coach Patrick Mouratoglou in mid-2012, he urged her to embrace the record chase. Williams went on to capture four of the next six Grand Slam events, an Olympic gold medal and two straight WTA Championships in a scintillating 16-month run.
But in the first three major tournaments of 2014, she didn’t make the quarterfinals. Her last appearance on the Grand Slam stage took a bizarre turn when an out-of-sorts Williams pulled out of a Wimbledon doubles match, citing a viral illness.
Evert, for one, figured she would be looking up at Williams by now. Or that maybe Williams would be chasing Steffi Graf’s Open-era record of 22 major titles.
Evert won her 18th and final major title at 31, the same age Williams was when she played at Flushing Meadows in 2013. Motivation gets harder with time because of the mental fatigue season after season.
“You just are not as fresh,” Evert said. “Some days you just don’t want to get out of bed.”
Williams still rates as the favorite at Flushing Meadows. She is seeking to join Evert as the only women to win three straight titles here in the Open era, which began in 1968.
Williams’ five titles in 2014 are the most on the WTA tour; nobody else has more than three. Over the last seven Grand Slam events, the five titles not won by Williams went to five different players, and two of them won’t be at Flushing Meadows: the retired Marion Bartoli and the injured Li Na.
Five-time major champ Maria Sharapova hasn’t looked that sharp since winning her second French Open title in June.
Meanwhile, with Rafael Nadal unable to defend his men’s title because of a wrist injury, several top players come in uncharacteristically shaky.
After winning Wimbledon and getting married, top-seeded Novak Djokovic was, in his words, “emotionally a little bit flat” in losing early in two hardcourt tournaments.
“I was a bit slow, I have to say, to get into the competition mode,” Djokovic said. “It was a very unique five, six weeks that I had with the wedding and winning Wimbledon and getting back to number one in the world. I couldn’t ask for more. I was extremely fulfilled and happy with where I am in my life.”
Andy Murray has yet to rediscover his championship form after back surgery. Perhaps this is 33-year-old Roger Federer’s last, best chance to win another major title.