Last we saw Serena Williams, she was still in disbelief (as was the rest of the world) after losing the U.S. Open semifinal to ebullient Italian Roberta Vinci.
It was Sept. 11, 2015, and Williams was two victories away from a rare historic feat, the calendar Grand Slam. No male or female had won all four majors in a year since Steffi Graf in 1988, and odds were that Williams would do it.
She swept the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon, and was a 30-to-1 favorite to beat journeywoman Vinci. It was Vinci’s first Grand Slam semifinal. It was Williams’ 47th. Williams had won 53 of 55 matches last season.
The media buildup intensified for weeks, and many tennis luminaries gathered in New York to be on hand for Williams’ milestone. But Vinci altered the script, pulling off a stunning 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 upset of the world No. 1.
Williams was in no mood to talk to reporters after, and didn’t play any more matches the rest of the year, other than a few Team Tennis events. She is back after a four-month break, aiming to win a seventh Australian Open and put the U.S. Open disappointment behind her.
The tournament begins Monday, and 34-year-old Williams remains the player to beat. Never mind that she is coming off a long layoff and pulled out of the Hopman Cup in Perth, Australia, last week with a sore left knee. She has won 21 majors and is poised to win another if she stays on top of her game.
“My body is feeling great now,” she told the Melbourne Herald Sun on Wednesday. “Obviously I had a hiccup but right now it is doing much better. I’ve had a few days of training so it’s looking good. I know what I need to do on and off the court to win big tournaments.”
Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said in an interview with usta.com that her hiatus should not be an issue: “Serena is not the type of player who needs to play to feel confident in her game. Every time she is starting a Grand Slam tournament, her expectation is to win the title. I do not see any reason why it should be different this time.”
That said, it will be difficult for Williams to match the year she had in 2015.
“She can’t have another year like she had last year,” ESPN commentator Chris Evert said. “She narrowly escaped so many matches, down a set, down a set and a break. It can’t happen again like that. That would be, like, immortal for that to happen.”
But Brad Gilbert, also in the booth for ESPN, said it would not surprise him if Williams continues to win majors this year.
“For me, it’s simple. She’s been the greatest player, bar none, from 30 and older. She’s been the oldest player No. 1 in the last three years, 32, 33, 34. Never underestimate a Williams.”
On the men’s side, the biggest question is how long can No. 1 Novak Djokovic continue his dominance? The 28-year-old Serb won three majors last year and six other big tournament titles. He is going for his sixth Australian Open title.
“He’s an incredibly young 28,” Gilbert said. “He’s in the prime of his career. To me, he’s set to do some unbelievable damage the next couple of years. He had one of the most dominant years last year. I said at the start of the year I thought he would win at least three. Right now he is as complete a tennis player as I’ve ever seen. … Joker has it all. There’s nothing boring about his game. His backhand is scripted from God. Like an Andre [Agassi] backhand. His return of serve is incredible. His movement. He’s got the complete package game-wise, technically, physically, mentally.”
The usual suspects are chasing Djokovic — Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal and Stan Wawrinka, who beat Djokovic at the 2014 Australian Open in an epic five-set quarterfinal and also beat him in the 2015 French Open final.
Murray is a four-time finalist Down Under and is coming off a Davis Cup win that kept him in match shape during the offseason. He and his wife are expecting their first baby in early February, so Murray has been a bit distracted but he certainly is a player to watch.
Nadal, 29, seems to be back in good form after struggling with injuries last year and sliding in the rankings. Grigor Dmitrov, Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori are among the younger players who could make noise.
And then there’s Federer, 34-year-old father of four who continues to defy his age. He is still up there at No. 3 in the world, behind Djokovic and Murray. Federer won in Cincinnati last summer and reached the finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, losing both to Djokovic.
“At 34, he’s still playing amazing tennis,” Gilbert said of Federer. “He’s right in the thick of things. He’s just got to be able to find a way to beat a guy that’s six years younger than him in a slam final. That’s basically it in a nutshell.”
When: Jan. 18-31.
Where: Melbourne, Australia.
Defending champions: Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams.
TV: ESPN, ESPN2, Tennis Channel.
Prize money: Men’s and women’s singles champion each receives approximately $2.6 million.
Surface: Hard court.
Players to watch
Serena Williams: The defending champion won three Grand Slam events last year, just missing the calendar Slam with a semifinal loss at the U.S. Open. She has 21 majors on her resume, one shy of Steffi Graf’s record. She has won six titles in Melbourne.
Maria Sharapova: Always a threat to make a deep run, but hasn’t won the tile Down Under since 2008.
Simona Halep: Was knocked out in the quarterfinals last year, but is good enough to go farther.
Agnieszska Radwanska: Reached the semifinals two years ago, and always seems to be in the mix in the late rounds.
Viktoria Azarenka: A two-time Australian Open winner with enough power and grit to give Williams a challenge.
Novak Djokovic: The world No. 1 last year became the third man in the Open Era to reach all four Grand Slam finals, winning three of them. Djoker won the Australian Open in 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015.
Andy Murray: Second-ranked Murray has lost four finals in Melbourne. Is this the year he finally wins it?
Roger Federer: The ageless 34-year-old Swiss maestro bids for his 18th major title.
Rafael Nadal: Back in good form after some injuries, Nadal seeks to become the first man in the Open Era to win each of the Grand Slam events twice.
Stan Wawrinka: The only man other than Djokovic to win the title in Melbourne since 2010. Wawrinka won it in 2014, and beat Djokovic in the 2015 French Open final.