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An Achilles injury ended Serena Williams’ latest bid for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title at Roland Garros on Wednesday, but it’s Father Time who may prove her most implacable rival.
Williams has just turned 39 and has been on tour since 1998.
However, her 23rd and most recent major came at the 2017 Australian Open when she was pregnant. It’s her longest dry spell at the majors.
“I’m pretty good at it still and I’m so close to some things, so I feel like I’m almost there. I think that’s what keeps me going,” she said.
This year will be her first since 2006 that she failed to make a Grand Slam final and the recent near-misses will hurt.
After returning from giving birth to daughter Olympia, Williams reached the finals of Wimbledon and the US Open, both in 2018 and 2019.
In 2020, however, she fell in three sets in the third round in Australia to China’s Wang Qiang while the cancellation of Wimbledon, where she is a seven-time winner, was another roadblock.
She will leave Paris knowing full well that such a disrupted season represented her best opportunity to add to her majors haul.
In New York, where she reached the semi-finals, six of the world’s top players opted not to play.
At Roland Garros, four of the leading 10 are missing — world number one and defending champion Ashleigh Barty, US Open winner Naomi Osaka, 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu as well as Swiss number 10 Belinda Bencic.
At 39, she is 10 years older than the next oldest in the top 10, Simona Halep.
All around her are players with time on their side — Andreescu is 20, Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin is 21 and Osaka, already a three-time major champion, is still just 22.
However, it would take a lot to convince Williams to call it quits having overcome more serious hurdles than an Achilles injury in her time.
In 2011, a pulmonary embolism caused a clot in her lung.
– ‘Death bed’ –
“I was on my death bed at one point – quite literally. I’ve had a serious illness but at first I didn’t appreciate that,” she said at the time.
Seven years later, she revealed that she had another close encounter with her own mortality when giving birth.
“I almost died after giving birth to my daughter,” said Williams after undergoing an emergency caesarean section.
On Wednesday, Williams gave no indication that she was on the brink of retirement from a career which has brought her 73 career titles, $93.5 million in prize money and a 23-Slam haul which started in 1999 with the first of her six US Open crowns.
“I always give 100 percent, everyone knows that. Maybe even more than 100 if that’s possible. I take solace in that,” she told reporters.
Williams, a three-time champion in Paris, had arrived in France carrying the Achilles injury which she suffered in a gruelling US Open semi-final defeat to Victoria Azarenka.
“The Achilles didn’t have enough time to heal after the US Open,” said Williams who had been due to face Bulgaria’s Tsvetana Pironkova in the second round at Roland Garros later Wednesday.
“I was struggling to walk and that is a tell-tale sign that I should try to recover.”
– ‘Recover for future’ –
“I feel like my body is actually doing really, really well. I just ran into, for lack of a better word, bad timing and bad luck, really, in New York.”
The injury almost certainly means she will miss the rest of 2020 leaving the Australian Open in 2021 as her next chance to equal Margaret Court’s all-time majors record.
“I need four to six weeks of sitting and doing nothing, and that will give me time to recover for the future,” said Williams, the Roland Garros champion in 2002, 2013 and 2015.
“It’s more than likely that I won’t play another tournament this year.”
Should she decide to call time on her professional career, her legacy will not be damaged, say her rivals.
“It doesn’t matter if she’s out of the tournament. She’s a great champion,” said world number five Elina Svitolina.
“It’s very tough to say something else because all the time that I play against her, it’s a big privilege for me.”
© 2020 AFP