Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic left the pristine lawns of Wimbledon last summer as repeat champions, solidifying their positions as the undisputed best players in the world.
Williams won her 21st Grand Slam title, leaving her one shy of Steffi Graf’s Open-era record, a mark everyone figured Williams would break at the U.S. Open a few months later. Djokovic won his ninth major and pulled even farther away from his closest rivals Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
The champions have taken divergent paths since they danced together at the 2015 Wimbledon ball. They enter the 2016 tournament Monday on very different missions. Williams has not won a Grand Slam final since then, is stuck at Slam No. 21 and is out to prove as she approaches her 35th birthday that she can still win the sport’s premier events.
Djokovic, meanwhile, has won all the majors since, collecting trophies at the U.S. Open, Australian Open and most recently at the French Open — the one major that had eluded him.
The gluten-free, seemingly invincible Serb is up to 12 Grand Slams and has won five of the past six. He is the defending champion of all four Slams right now and is halfway to a true Grand Slam. He is the first man since Jim Courier in 1992 to win the first two majors of the year.
Only Don Budge in 1938 and Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969 managed to win all four men’s Grand Slam tournaments within a calendar year. With a gold medal at the Rio Olympics, Djokovic could be on his way to a Golden Grand Slam.
He is 44-3 this year, has won six titles and has not lost a match at Wimbledon since 2013.
At this pace, it is conceivable he will challenge Federer’s record 17 Grand Slam titles.
“Everyone is chasing Djokovic, there’s no question about it,” ESPN analyst John McEnroe said. “Everybody else is trying to bridge the gap. At the moment, the level that Novak is at is something that you rarely, if ever, see — that consistency. He’s impenetrable in a way.”
Chris Evert, also working for ESPN, said Djokovic is finally getting the recognition he has earned.
“Djokovic came along in an era where you have two of the most beloved players, two of the most exciting players with a lot of flair in Nadal and in Federer,” Evert said. “Nadal and Federer are so different, they had so many classic matches, I think there’s just an aura around their rivalry. Then Novak came in, no drama, not a lot of flair, just the most dependable and most consistent and efficient player there was.
“As we see now, this guy quietly could just beat everybody as far as Grand Slam wins. He could just be the greatest of all time if he continues to go at the speed that he’s going.”
Williams hit some speed bumps in the past 12 months.
As it turned out, she did not break Graf’s record at the much-hyped U.S. Open, which had planned an elaborate ceremony. She suffered a shocking loss in the semifinals to Italian Roberta Vinci, who was playing in her first Grand Slam semifinal while Williams was in her 47th. Williams entered that semi on a 33-match win streak and was a 30-1 favorite to win.
Williams did not get Slam No. 22 at the Australian Open, either. She lost the final to first-time Slam winner Angelique Kerber. And Williams remained stalled at No. 21 at the French Open, where she lost to another first-time winner, Garbine Muguruza of Spain.
The quest for Graf’s record “has gotten to her a little bit nerve-wise, no doubt about it,” Evert said.
“Especially against Kerber and against Muguruza, she wasn’t able to dig herself out of the hole like she has in past years, which was surprising to see because that’s what she is famous for. When she’s down, she can get that next gear, that next level, play some great tennis. We didn’t see that in both those matches when she was in trouble. That tells me something is holding her back, and it could be nerves.”
Another factor, Evert suggested, is that some of Williams’ opponents no longer view her as unbeatable.
“They are starting to believe they can beat Serena,” Evert said. “They know she’s human. We’ve never seen that in Serena’s career when she’s been dominant. There’s always been a little bit of resistance or a little bit of doubt, and they haven’t been able to play their game aggressively on the big points in the third set, and Serena has been able to … I think more and more players are finding that belief as Serena loses more and more, she becomes less and less untouchable.”
When/where: Monday-July 10; All England Lawn Tennis Club.
Defending champions: Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams.
TV: ESPN, ESPN2, Tennis Channel.
Players to watch
Novak Djokovic: Defending champion has won five of past six majors, going for calendar Grand Slam.
Andy Murray: Lost Australian Open and French Open finals to Djokovic, but has legend Ivan Lendl coaching him again, which could give him the edge he needs.
Roger Federer: The seven-time Wimbledon winner has been battling injuries this year but is always a threat.
Milos Raonic: Big-serving Canadian coached by John McEnroe could make some noise.
Stan Wawrinka: The tour’s “other” Swiss player has won an Australian Open and is capable of upsets.
Serena Williams: World No. 1 has been stuck on Grand Slam No. 21 since 2015 Wimbledon, but this is the place she could make history.
Garbine Muguruza: Fearless 22-year-old Spaniard showed in French Open final she has the power and courage to beat Williams.
Petra Kvitova: Two-time Wimbledon champion — in 2011 and 2014 — has the game to make it three.
Madison Keys: American 21-year-old beat Kvitova, Muguruza in Rome, broke into the Top 10, and her win on grass at Birmingham tuneup is a good sign.
Angelique Kerber: Australian Open champion is not afraid of Williams.