MELBOURNE, Australia – One by one, American Serena Williams is matching the feats of tennis’ greatest legends.
Her next challenge comes at the Australian Open, which starts Sunday with Williams seeking her 18th title in a Grand Slam tournament — an accomplishment that would match Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.
“It would mean a lot to be on the same level as such great players,” Williams said in a pretournament news conference, quickly adding a dash of humility. “I still have a lot of work to do. I obviously want to reach that level, but I’m not there yet.
“Hopefully, I’ll get there.”
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Williams is ranked No. 1 in the world and is the tournament’s top seed. She enters the event after a spectacular 2013 season. Last year, Williams won 78 of her 82 matches — including the French Open and the U.S. Open finals. She earned more than $12 million in prize money, a record for women’s tennis.
At 32, an age where many professional players are in decline, Williams is playing the best tennis of her career, said Navratilova, who predicts Williams will win in Melbourne and go on to surpass Steffi Graf’s 22 major titles in the Open era.
“If she can stay healthy, there’s no doubt she can go into the 20s. The sky is the limit,” Navratilova said.
In terms of major-tournament titles, no woman playing professional tennis today comes close. In a distant second place is Williams’ older sister, Venus, who has won seven major titles during a career that is waning because of age, injuries and an autoimmune disease that saps her energy. Venus’ last victory in a Grand Slam tournament final came at Wimbledon in 2008.
Third-ranked Maria Sharapova, a four-time major winner, is coming back after playing one post-Wimbledon match in 2013 because of hip and shoulder injuries.
She sat out the last two months of the 2013 season and says she is still nursing her shoulder with “precautionary” anti-inflammatories at times.
“I’m happy to be back playing a Grand Slam,” said Sharapova, who tore her rotator cuff in two places in 2008, requiring surgery that kept her off the Tour for nearly a year. “I’m happy to get myself back in form and really start well here.”
The player who is considered the greatest threat to Williams is No. 2 Victoria Azarenka, the two-time Australian Open defending champion.
Williams has defeated Azarenka in 14 of their 17 matches. On the other hand, Azarenka has excelled more recently in Melbourne, where Williams has won five titles but none since 2010.
Asked why she has stumbled in Melbourne in recent years, Williams half-joked: “I just wasn’t able to stay on two feet. Literally.”
Last year, Williams tumbled to the court in her first-round match after turning her right ankle. She was defeated in the quarterfinals by fellow American Sloane Stephens.
“I’ve been doing a lot of exercises for my ankles and trying to make sure that they’re pretty stabilized,” said Williams.
Williams produced a strong start to the new season, with back-to-back victories over Sharapova and Azarenka earlier this month in Brisbane. She beat Sharapova in the semifinals and overcame Azarenka in the final.
In Melbourne, Williams will only get the chance to play one of them. Azarenka and Sharapova are on the opposite side of the draw from Williams and could end up playing each other in the semifinals.
Sharapova’s first-round match is against Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Azarenka opens against Johanna Larsson of Sweden.
Williams has 2011 U.S. Open champion Samantha Stosur and two-time Australian finalist Li Na in her half of the draw.
Williams starts her Australian Open campaign against Australian teenager Ashleigh Barty, who was trying to look on the bright side about the match.
“I’m just going to go out there and enjoy it,” said Barty, who is 17 and ranked 153rd in the world.
“Not every day do you get the opportunity to play the number-one player in the world and one of the greatest champions of all time. I’m really excited for the challenge.”