Serena Williams had a successful 2016 by most people’s standards, winning Wimbledon to match Steffi Graf’s 22 career Grand Slam titles, finishing second in Australia and France and getting engaged to marry Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian.
But the women’s tennis season concluded with many wondering whether Williams, at 35, ever would be her dominant self again, having lost the No. 1 ranking to Angelique Kerber after losing in the U.S. Open semifinals to Karolina Pliskova and battling injuries.
We will know soon enough, as the Australian Open begins Monday in summery Melbourne.
What might we expect? ESPN analyst Chris Evert expects her best.
“This is a woman with pride and ego and used to being No. 1, used to being the queen at the top,” Evert said on a conference call with reporters to promote the tournament.
“I’m sure that 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.”
Evert was asked what effect Williams’ engagement might have on her.
“That remains to be seen,” said Evert, whose romantic life was a frequent source of attention and intrigue during and after her playing days. “You can’t predict when somebody gets engaged.
“It can go one of two ways. 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 was fighting all kinds of things. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. The shoulder. If it wasn’t the shoulder, it was something else.”
Williams remains the Great American Hope in tennis, with no Grand Slam champions on the immediate horizon among the men or women. But Evert sees signs of progress.
“At one point we had hardly any American players in the top 100,” she said. “Now, women-wise anyway, we have 17. I think that’s more than any other [country]. So we’ve got the depth. Congratulations, U.S. tennis.
“We have the depth, but where is that Grand Slam champion? To me, I’ve always looked at Madison Keys [who will miss Australia after wrist surgery], only because of the power. To me, she matches Serena’s power, on the groundstrokes, on the first serve for sure. When I look at a surface like grass, Wimbledon, she to me is potentially a Wimbledon champion.
“In saying that, yes, a lot of things have to happen. She has to be more mature. She has to be smarter on the court. As far as raw talent, she’s got the weapons to win a major.
“As far as any other woman is concerned right now, I wouldn’t put my money on anybody else in American tennis.”
Tennis could use more Americans near the top to promote the game, and it can’t rely on Williams in that role forever. Evert suggests more innovative approaches to showcasing the sport.
“Because I’m a TV girl now, I think more access to the players [would help],” she said. “I still don’t think it’s a bad idea to interview a player after a first set or after a second set. I think that’s very do-able.
“I think it is progressive thinking. We’re really kind of in the Dark Ages when it comes to getting the players out there, just having a little more buzz about the players. I think on TV, I’d like to see more coaches being interviewed. I would like that to be mandatory.
“I think we need to improve ratings in every aspect, sort of get more of an audience to appreciate the game and feel like they’re involved in it, see a personality on the court.”