Distractions are nothing new to Serena Williams, who has spent her entire career juggling tennis with outside interests.
But this year, she enters the Australian Open with a different kind of diversion, and time will tell how — or if — it will affect her quest for a record-setting 23rd Grand Slam title.
Williams, 35, was recently engaged to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. She posted the news with a poem on his website, and the couple rang in the New Year together in New Zealand. They have not announced a date yet, and wedding plans are on hold for the next few weeks while she aims for history.
Speaking to reporters in Melbourne last week, she said her mind is focused on tennis.
“I told [Ohanian] my main goal was to win this title,” she said.
She has not started thinking about dresses or invitations or flowers yet, she said.
“Oh my God. I don’t think about it really,” she said. “I have a job — I mean, he does, too. I kinda gotta focus.”
This year, Williams does not enter the season as the world’s top-ranked player. She lost that title to Angelique Kerber, who beat her in last year’s Australian Open final and took over the No. 1 ranking in September when Williams lost in the semifinals of the U.S. Open.
Williams is never satisfied with No. 2, so that will surely motivate her in the coming weeks.
“This is a woman with pride and ego and used to being No. 1, used to being the queen at the top,” ESPN analyst Chris Evert said. “I’m sure that’s going to be motivation for her, not liking to see another name up there. … I don’t think it’s a matter of if she’s going to win another Grand Slam, I think it’s when, and I think it will happen this year.”
Williams agreed she feels pressure, but that is nothing new.
“I am No. 2, I guess. I definitely don’t feel like anyone’s saying that, ‘Oh, there’s no pressure on Serena,’ ” she said. “It’s always there; I’m used to it. I feel like I’ve been No. 1 for so long, so many times. I’ve done things that are amazing. Sometimes that ranking really means a lot, but also I feel like sometimes just winning events ... means just as much.”
Williams said she is not worried after making 88 unforced errors in a loss to 72nd-ranked American Madison Brengle in a warmup tournament in New Zealand.
“I’ve moved on,” she said. “I’m feeling relaxed, calm, ready and poised.”
Evert said there is no way to predict if Williams’ engagement will have any bearing on her tennis.
“It can go one of two ways,” she said. “It can be a very pleasant distraction. You can lose your focus a little bit at the task at hand. Or it can be so inspiring, you feel so good, that you’re more settled. You really are in a really good place emotionally, and your tennis can improve. We’ve seen it both ways in tennis players. I don’t think we can predict that. In saying that, you know, the one good thing coming into the year, Serena seems to be healthy.”
She will be tested by Kerber, who followed up her Australian Open by reaching the semifinals at Wimbledon, winning a silver medal at the Olympics and winning the U.S. Open. Kerber will be defending a major title for the first time in her career, and has never had to deal with the pressure of being No. 1 in the world and a Slam favorite.
There is also a new No. 1 on the men’s side. Novak Djokovic, who spent 122 consecutive weeks at No. 1 and has won six titles Down Under, comes in at No. 2 this year behind Andy Murray, who has never entered a major as the man to beat.
Murray has lost five Australian Open finals — the first to Roger Federer and the rest to Djokovic.
But the Scot had a fantastic 2016 season, going 45-3 after reaching his first French Open final, winning Wimbledon, the Olympics, and the ATP Tour Final. He reached the final of 12 of the 13 tournaments he entered and finished the year on a 24-match win streak. He also became a father for the first time.
Despite a slip the second half of last season, Djokovic told reporters he feels “phenomenal” heading into the Australian Open, where he has dominated for so long. He beat Murray in a warmup event in Doha.
“Maybe this is the year — 2017 for seven,” Djokovic said. “I’m not a numerologist, but it sounds good.”
Murray is confident that he can build on his success from last year.
“Each time I come, I think I’ve got a chance of winning, but it’s just never happened,” he said. “Hopefully, this year will be different. I do think the last few months of last year can help me with giving me confidence. Other players look at that and see you’re playing well and feeling physically and mentally strong.”
Although they are not favored, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer should not be overlooked. Federer, the 17-time Grand Slam champion, is back after a six-month break to recover from a knee injury. He is seeded No. 17, the first time he is out of the top 10 since the 2002 U.S. Open. His return to the tour is such big news that 6,000 fans showed up for his practice in Perth, Australia.
Other men to watch include 2014 Australian Open winner Stan Wawrinka, 2015 semifinalist Milos Raonic, 2014 U.S. Open runner up Kei Nishikori, Dominic Thiem, Nick Kyrgios, and Alexander Zverov.
“I think there’s a lot of story lines for the men,” ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said. “I do think that having Murray come in there as the No. 1 player, having never won down there, and Djokovic has really been the man the last four, five, six years in Australia, that adds a little extra spice to it in addition to those other guys coming back.”
2017 Australian Open
When: Monday-Jan. 29.
Where: Melbourne, Australia.
Defending champions: Angelique Kerber, Novak Djokovic.