Heading into Wimbledon, Serena Williams was having a rough season — at least by her otherworldly standards. In 2015, the number one WTA player nearly won four grand slams, falling just short when she was upset at the U.S. Open in September. Many expected more of the same dominance in 2016. However, when the 34-year-old Williams fell to Angelique Kerber in the Australian Open final and up-and-comer Garbine Muguruza in the French Open final, it started to look like something of a disappointing year.
ESPN, within its greater tennis coverage, carries full statistics for each major professional player, and looking at Serena Williams’ results, it has indeed been an underwhelming season. Williams is 24-4 on the season with just one singles title (and no doubles titles) to her credit. And she’s raked in about $3.4 million. That doesn’t sound too bad, but when you consider that in 2015 she was 53-3 with five singles titles (three at Grand Slam events) and about $10.5 million in earnings, it’s clear that the pace has dropped off a little bit.
That’s not to say Williams was in danger of losing her status as the top player in the WTA. But when things start to slow down at age 34, questions about a decline become legitimate. It’s the same thing we’ve seen with Roger Federer on the men’s side of professional tennis. And yet, just as Federer has stormed the Wimbledon semifinals for a record 11th time, Serena Williams breezed into the semis and demolished Elena Vesnina 6-2, 6-0 to reach the final.
So what got Williams back on track? Who knows? The answer is probably just that she’s still the best on the tour and she’s focused and motivated. But we have a few other fun theories as to what might be going on in London as well.
The Resurgence Of Venus
Venus Williams, who is two years older than her sister, made her first Wimbledon semifinal since 2009, and the talk of the tournament became that we might see our first all-Williams final in years. Unfortunately for fans who were hoping for this sort of spectacle, Venus Williams fell short on Thursday, losing to Angelique Kerber before she could reach the final. But the fact remains that Venus looked better than she had in years and became the oldest Grand Slam semifinalist since the 1994 Wimbledon Championships, when Martina Navratilova made it at 37. So could sisterly competition have driven Serena? It might sound silly, but she’s often been at her best when competing against her big sister, and seeing Venus make a run might have led to Serena’s stellar play these past two weeks.
The Old Sock Trick
You may not have heard of this one before, but it’s a pretty bizarre aspect of Williams’s success. You can actually read about it at Lottoland, a site perhaps best known as an online outlet for Powerball players, but one that also produces fun content related to luck and fortune. Players seeking Powerball winnings like to learn all they can about good luck, and in one of the pieces of content the site produces they covered some of the superstitious rituals of professional athletes. And there, it was revealed that Serena Williams refuses to change or wash her socks throughout an entire tournament. If that’s still the case, perhaps she simply found the right pair of socks for Wimbledon. Though one has to imagine the all-white uniform requirements at the All England Club make the prospect of not washing them a bit tricky!
This one seems pretty doubtful. As many parallels as there might seem to be between Williams and Federer (they’re arguably their genders’ respective best of all time and their careers have covered nearly identical time spans), they don’t really seem to be that connected. They’ll praise one another when asked to comment, and one imagines they interact quite frequently behind the scenes, at both tennis and Nike events. Nevertheless, it would almost be surprising if they don’t feel some level of competition. Perhaps seeing Federer en route to a possible 18th Grand Slam title has motivated Williams to rack up another win of her own.
The Chase For History
In all likelihood, this is the real answer. As noted in one recap of Williams’ easy semifinal win on Thursday, Williams has a chance to equal Steffi Graf’s record of 22 Grand Slam wins if she’s able to defeat Kerber on Saturday. Many have considered this achievement to be such a foregone conclusion that they’ve stopped keeping track of Williams’s actual pursuit. But it’s easy to imagine that Williams would love to equal Graf on the Wimbledon grass — and possibly surpass her at the U.S Open later this year.
Any or all of these things could be behind Serena Williams’s run at Wimbledon. It could also just be that she’s still the best in her sport by a clear margin, and her underwhelming performance in 2016 so far has been greatly exaggerated. Whatever the case, the woman many would consider to be the best female athlete alive is back in the Wimbledon final and seeking history once more.
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