If Serena Williams wins Wimbledon in the next two weeks to equal Steffi Graf ’s modern-era record of 22 grand slam titles, she will be one step closer to realising her dream of being universally recognised as the greatest female tennis player of all time. But women’s tennis could also be one step closer to crisis.
Because when Williams zips up her racket bag for the last time, the sport will have lost another of its biggest stars, with no sign of anyone stepping into her shoes any time soon. As it is, the women’s game is only just coming to terms with losing its most marketable player, Maria Sharapova, who has recently been banned for two years for taking the heart-disease drug meldonium, which has been banned since January because it enhances an athlete’s capacity to exercise.
But while Sharapova, who spent part of her childhood in the Russian oil town of Ngayan, and who won the 2004 Wimbledon title at 17, has been sent to tennis Siberia (exile in California), in south-west London all the talk is of how much longer the Williams sisters can keep going. Defending champion Serena is unquestionably the alpha female of her generation, and perhaps of all generations, but although her coach, Frenchman Patrick Mouratoglou, has “zero idea” when the 34-year- old might retire, he knows there is the chance that she could wake up one morning soon and find she is drained of all motivation. Williams’s older sister, Venus, is already 36 and is unlikely to have much tennis left in her, either.
“Serena, Venus and Sharapova are global icons and for years many have been going to tournaments just to see those three play,” says Mouratoglou during a break in play at the French Open. “So it won’t be easy when they are no longer around. It’s possible that someone incredible comes through, but I don’t see that happening.”
Mouratoglou has no sympathy for Sharapova’s fate: “I don’t feel sorry for some one who doesn’t respect the rules. Whether she did it on purpose or not, it’s a professional mistake. This is life and you have to pay for your mistakes.”
How much longer can his star Williams continue playing? “It depends on three things. One is staying healthy. At her age, if she had a really bad injury, I think it would be difficult to come back. The second is whether she feels as though she can win a slam. If she feels she can’t, probably she will stop, because it would make no sense to carry on. If she thinks she can carry on winning and setting a bigger record, she is going to keep playing.
“The third thing is motivation and that’s something you can’t control. If one day you wake up and you have no motivation to go on a tennis court, it’s better to stop.”
Almost a year has passed since Williams last won a major, with that victory coming at the All England Club last July, and Mouratoglou knows how self-doubt can affect someone he already regards as the greatest of all time. “I can’t expect Serena not to be human. Serena’s emotions show that she cares. If she had zero emotions, she would have retired by now.
“When someone is on the tennis court, you can see their real personality. Away from tennis, Serena is a different person – she’s super-fun and super-relaxed and is really enjoying life. But she’s also a killer on the court,” says Mouratoglou. “But a killer in a good sense – she’s someone who has the culture of winning, who’s tough on herself and always expects the best from herself at all times.”
That pursuit of excellence, and wanting to equal Graf ’s record, explains why Williams has appeared so vulnerable of late. “Serena feels the pressure of being close to the record. The pressure is more intense now than it was when she had two fewer slams.”
As Williams’s mentor, Mouratoglou is one of the most influential coaches in tennis. He thinks Andy Murray’s decision to work with Amélie Mauresmo – a relationship that ended last month – was “strange” and “courageous”. “It’s strange for a guy to hire a woman,” he says, speaking before Murray announced his decision to rehire Ivan Lendl.
“Nothing bad about women, but it’s strange because usually they don’t know the men’s game as well as the women’s game, and it’s a very macho world. It was very courageous of Andy to hire her.
“I’m not saying it was a mistake, but he didn’t win anything major with Amélie. If Andy had won two or three grand slams with Amélie, we would see it differently.”
But back to Williams and her quest to equal and then surpass Graf’s collection of slams. “If you ask me whether Serena is already the greatest ever, I’d say yes, but I’m emotionally involved. My job is Serena. So I don’t know whether I’m the one to ask. The only way to stop that question being asked, and to end the discussions, is for Serena to beat the record. That would settle it. So let’s do it.”