In November, I began writing a four part review of the 2016 WTA season. I wrote the first two segments, but on New Year’s Eve it has not been completed. Everybody has moved on. Thus, as I will be covering two of the only notable occurrences of the second half of 2016 (Monica Puig’s Olympic triumph and Karolina Pliskova’s major breakthrough) in separate pieces, I’m writing this instead.
Here is my simple prediction: 2017 will be the year of Serena Williams.
As those of you who follow me might be aware, I like Serena rather a lot. I suppose, in a way, that you could say I am here, writing about tennis, because of Serena. My earliest tennis memory is watching her sister Venus win Wimbledon. And in the early days, tennis for me went no further than Venus and Serena Williams. They were phenomenal. They were dominant. They were the leading ladies, the champions of power tennis, the women with the fierce, lethal groundstrokes and serves who brought sheer magic to the WTA tour. To me, they still are all of these things – and even as a journalist who takes a public stand against vocal bias, I am not afraid to say that. Venus is a seven-time Grand Slam singles champion, a star who has duelled an autoimmune disease and countless critics in order to two seasons featuring plentiful top ten victories and a first return to a major semifinal since 2009. She can still beat anyone on the tour, including her sister – who, with 22 major crowns, is fast putting her case to be the Greatest Of All Time into a class of its own.
But my awe and respect for Serena did, indeed, hinder my assessment of 2016. This is not in the way you would expect. Knowing my admiration for her, I was cautious as to how this could blind my judgement of her performance, and was thus wary to assess her 2016 as ‘not as bad as some are making out’. When Angelique Kerber reached world no. 1, it felt wrong – but I did not feel in a position to argue against it. So I praised her. The German had, after all, won two major titles and beaten any woman worth beating during a season that saw her rise from world no. 10 to the pinnacle of the rankings. It was a stunning leap from a woman who few ever thought would be more than an average top ten player.
Nevertheless, what I did, which I never should have done, was doubted how well Serena had performed. There was never a question in my mind that Serena Williams was, and remained, the best female tennis player in the world, whatever the rankings said. Kerber may have beaten Serena in January, but Serena took her down in straights in July. The wonderwoman’s 22nd Grand Slam title was the highlight of the season, and she remained the most lethal competitor I watched all year. In my eyes, Kerber’s Australian Open victory came largely due to her opponent’s unforced errors, and a messy service game when she had got the match back on her racquet.
But because of my personal inclinations, I wondered if I was being biased. At one point, in my confusion, I wrote in a piece that Serena had ‘wobbled’ this season – and was rightly corrected.
So here’s the thing. In the first Slam of the season, Williams lost just her fifth Grand Slam final in 26 contested. Having not competed in four months, it was phenomenal – and a perfect display of just how brilliant the 35-year-old is – that she even made the final round. Nevertheless, the loss seemed to shell-shock the American, and put a dent in the armour that had shone in the final rounds of Grand Slams. The damage was evident as she failed to bring her best against a zoning Garbine Muguruza in the Roland Garros grand finale four months later.
But these are just two performances of many. The statistics tell us that Angelique Kerber got to world no. 1 after playing 24 tournaments in 2016. And they tell us that Serena Williams stayed at world no. 2 after playing eight. And if you take out the Olympics – which does not offer ranking points – that drops it down to seven.
Eight meagre tournaments played saw her stay ahead of Kerber for most of the year. Eight events – a third of the amount that the year-end no. 1 played – saw her end the year ranked higher than a 2016 Slam champion. In eight showings – none of them ranking lower than Premier-level – the American reached the final. Rather than displaying a ‘wobble’ from Serena, it simply shows how high the standard she sets for herself is. Five finals in seven events – not to mention two title victories – is more than the rest of the WTA tour could even dream of.
A few days ago, Serena Williams announced her engagement to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. The vast majority of tennis followers were taken completely by surprise. The recent world no. 1 keeps her private life so separate from her on-court career that few even knew she was in a relationship.
Saying no names, there have been several players in recent times who have been sidetracked by off-court affairs, with their results taking a tumble as a result. But is that honestly likely to happen with Serena? After a 2016 season that refused to satisfy her phenomenal ambition – despite a Steffi Graf-equalling major title – the tennis legend will be dialled in to take everything she can in the coming year. And solid circumstances off-camera can only help to stabilise her performances in the public eye.
She may not sweep a Calendar Grand Slam. She will, more than likely, lose multiple matches this season. But overall, Serena Williams will come back to be the clear-cut queen of the WTA tour in 2017.
That is my gut instinct, and thus I am making it my vocal prediction. What’s yours?
Happy new year, one and all! Thanks for following The Tennis Journal during these first few months. Look out for regular content in 2017!