Wasn’t it a few years ago that tennis pundits were questioning Serena Williams’ staying power, suggesting she didn’t take the game seriously enough, that her outside interests would prevent her from reaching her potential, that she didn’t have the fitness or tennis drive necessary to keep up with the young, hungry players rising up the ranks?
Well, here she is, arriving at the Sony Open in Key Biscayne as the No. 1 player in the world at age 31, the oldest No. 1 since the WTA rankings began in 1975. She broke the record previously shared by Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, who were 30 when they were ranked on top.
Consider that Williams’ pro career has spanned three decades. She won her first title in 1999 at age 17.
Williams is coming off a year in which she went on a 26-1 run to win Wimbledon, the Olympic gold medal and the U.S. Open, bringing her Grand Slam title total to 15. She became the first 30-year-old woman to win the U.S. Open since Navratilova in 1987 and the first woman to surpass $40 million in earnings.
Making it all the more remarkable is the fact that Williams was off the tour for 10 months between the summers of 2010 and 2011. She cut her feet on broken glass at a restaurant in Germany a few days after winning the 2010 Wimbledon title and required two operations on her right foot, which remained in a cast much of the year.
She then developed blood clots in her lungs and had a few scary visits to the emergency room.
“There were times I thought the hill seemed nearly impossible to climb,” Williams said by phone last week. “During that whole time, I wasn’t even thinking about reaching No. 1 again. Wasn’t thinking about tennis. I was just thinking about getting up out of bed. Then, when I came back in the summer of 2011, I started playing really, really well. I thought, ‘OK, I can play tennis again.’
“I started setting short-term goals. Get back to the top 10. Pass this person. Be the best American. Little by little, I climbed my way back. It feels good to be No. 1 again. I feel I should be here.”
ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe is not surprised Williams is still around, and sitting atop the women’s game again.
“I remember four or five years ago, sitting on the set at the French Open, when Serena was making one of her many comebacks, and I got the sense she was serious about tennis, was going to commit, and I said at the time that she is capable of having a second part of her career like Andre Agassi did,” McEnroe said. “Technically, Serena’s a great player. She hits as clean as Agassi, has all the weapons, a great serve, she’s a great competitor. She just had to commit to being in shape and play enough tournaments to keep her ranking up.
“When she’s on, there aren’t many players who can stay with her. Injuries are the only thing that could keep her back.”
Williams has not abandoned her outside interests and still likes to have fun. She recently posed for a glamour photo leaning on a Bentley outside the St. Regis hotel in New York. She was in Chicago on Feb. 28 with First lady Michelle Obama and Nike executives for a program to get schoolchildren more active.
On March 1, she made headlines when she was scolded by a security guard as she tried to snap a photo of Tiger Woods from the gallery at the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens.
“Apparently, U can’t take pictures of golfers,” she posted on Twitter. “In my defense, peeps always take pics of tennis players.”
But Williams isn’t letting anything get in the way of her tennis.
“I enjoy it more and more the older I get,” Williams said. “I feel like I’m a kid still learning, like I can still get better.
“Losing motivates me. Sometimes, I hate to say this, but it’s good for me to lose because I can’t tell you how much that motivates me. All I can think of is that loss. It keeps me human.’’
That certainly was the case when she lost in the first round of the 2012 French Open to 111th-ranked Virginie Razzano, one of the most stunning upsets in recent memory. Williams took the loss hard, and sought extra coaching from Patrick Mouratoglou, who runs an academy outside Paris. The extra work clearly paid off.
Victoria Azarenka is one of the few players who doesn’t seem intimated by Williams, despite losing to her 11 of the 13 times they have played.
Azarenka first beat Williams 6-3, 6-1 in the 2009 Sony Ericsson Open final in Key Biscayne. It was clear from that match that the young Azarenka had the groundstrokes and guts to challenge Williams.
She beat Williams most recently 7-6, 2-6, 6-3 in the final in Doha, Qatar, on Feb. 17. During the trophy ceremony, they chatted about Oscars parties and shared a few laughs. Both players insist they are friendly rivals.
“I’ve always thought Victoria’s a good player, and she puts it all out there, like I do,” Williams said. “It’s one of the good rivalries because we don’t hate each other. We have respect for each other and enjoy the battle.”
Said Azarenka: “Any tournament I’m happy to play against Serena. I feel like we’re pushing each other to go to the limit every time, to step up, to improve, and that’s tremendous motivation to have.”
Azarenka pulled out of the tournament in Indian Wells, Calif., last week with an ankle injury, and she hoped to be recovered enough to play at the Sony Open.
Cordial as their rivalry might be, make no mistake. Williams has not lost her killer instinct.
Asked which players other than Azarenka pose a threat to her, Williams immediately jumped in: “I didn’t call her a threat. I wouldn’t use that word. That’s your word. There are other good players, but I wouldn’t call them threats.”
Williams is looking forward to the Sony Open, one of her favorite tournaments every year. She will be going for a sixth title. She won in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2007 and 2008.
“It’s home for me,” Williams, a Palm Beach Gardens resident, said of the Key Biscayne event. “All my friends come, and I want them to be able to stick around, so I have to keep winning.”
As long as she’s winning and enjoying the competition, don’t expect to see Williams abandon tennis for acting or the fashion industry — two of her side interests.
“I think maybe she saw it’s not that easy to be a Hollywood star,” McEnroe said. “A lot of people find that out. Just because you’re famous at one thing doesn’t mean you’ll be famous at something else. Serena has a great platform with tennis that can set her up for the rest of her life, so she might as well milk it for as long as she can.”