If you want to paint tennis history by the numbers, then Australian Margaret Court is the greatest women's player of all-time with 24 Grand Slam titles. But television analyst and Hall of Famer Chris Evert believes what her eyes tell her.
Watching Serena Williams drop only 13 games through five matches on her way to a date with China's Li Na in Friday's semifinals of the U.S. Open, Evert said Williams "is the greatest tennis player we've ever seen. She doesn't have the best record, but nobody's had a game like her -- the power, the best serve . . . This is peak Serena."
Two more wins will give Williams her fifth Open title and 17th career Grand Slam, equaling men's leader Roger Federer and moving within one of Evert and Martina Navratilova. Beyond those two are Helen Willis Moody with 19, Steffi Graf with 22 and then Court.
When Williams suffered a stunning first-round loss in the 2012 French Open, some wondered if it might signal her decline. But she formed an alliance with French coach Patrick Mouratoglou and has compiled a 96-5 singles record since then, including three of the past five Grand Slam titles.
Asked if Williams has her sights on a record number of Grand Slams, Mouratoglou Wednesday said, "This she doesn't speak about it. She said to me at the start, 'I'm prepared to do anything to be back to the top and to be winning Grand Slams.' She never speaks about a certain number of Grand Slams."
The depth of Williams' commitment has been evident from the moment she teamed with Mouratoglou and immediately won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year.
"She asked me what I thought about her game," the coach recalled Wednesday. "The first thing that I told her was that she was hitting the shots being out of balance. She was missing power because of that. So, that was a priority. She said, 'OK, I want to work on it.'"
Williams never has looked more powerful and efficient, but Mouratoglou said her 6-4, 6-1 fourth-round win over Sloane Stephens has been the only significant test in this tournament. Li was tough in a 7-5, 7-5 semifinal loss to Williams two weeks ago in Cincinnati, and No. 2 Victoria Azarenka won a third-set tiebreaker in the final.
If Williams goes on to defeat Li and Azarenka convincingly, Mouratoglou said, "Then we will know if she is really above those players or if they're really close."
Azarenka topped Daniela Hantuchova, 6-2, 6-3, in the quarterfinals last night at the National Tennis Center. Her semifinal opponent tomorrow will be Flavia Pennetta, who was a 6-4, 6-1 winner over fellow Italian Roberta Vinci. None of the remaining women has approached Williams' level of play, but her coach is taking nothing for granted.
"First, she has to beat Li, and then we'll see," Mouratoglou said. "Azarenka is a champion, and when it comes to big matches, she is always lifting her level. Always. If she plays Serena, she will play her best tennis."
Upsetting Williams in Cincinnati was one thing, but beating her at the U.S. Open is quite another. She may not focus on it, but it's clear the numbers matter to Williams.
Following her 6-0, 6-0 quarterfinal rout of Carla Suarez Navarro on Tuesday, Williams said, "People are saying that I could be , but for me, I'm just not there yet," Williams said. "I feel people like Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf are the ultimate icons in history. I just am still that girl with a racket and a dream, and I'm just playing for that."
That little girl turns 32 on Sept. 26 with a renewed sense of purpose and time enough to make history.
"She really wants it," Mouratoglou said. "She's working like she's 19 years old and wants to win her first Grand Slam. How many players, being 32, have the same appetite, especially after winning so many Grand Slams? Serena is really different mentally."