“I feel like I’m still incredibly competitive or else I wouldn’t really be out here,” she said. “Today nothing really helped. But also, I made way too many errors for a lot of stuff to work. I need to keep working and maybe be able to play some tournaments uninjured, like I did with this one.”
But she also has to worry about overtraining. “I think there’s a limit,” she admitted. “I think if I overdo it, then that could also be a problem, as well.”
Somewhere along the line in the past few years, Williams became a player of directed purpose with her eye on the record book. But she wasn’t always numbers-conscious earlier in her career, and if she fails to equal Court’s mark, it will be because she squandered some seasons. It’s one of the strange wrinkles in her record that from 1999 to 2006 she was great without being unduly dedicated: Although she won eight majors, she went through long stretches of dormancy. There were years when she didn’t even enter all four Grand Slam events.
But then the numbers game caught her attention — 15 of her 23 major titles have come since 2007. By 2012 she and her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, were unabashedly chasing the all-time benchmarks.
The first goal was to reach Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova’s achievement of 18 Grand Slam titles each. Then she approached Steffi Graf’s 22, the modern-era record.
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“Okay,” she said to Mouratoglou, “so you told me to beat Evert and Navratilova, then Steffi Graf, so what’s after that?”
“Beat Graf, and then we’ll talk,” he replied.
For Williams to equal the Court record now, a lot of dials will have to line up right, and she knows it. She acknowledges that she doesn’t have another five or even three years, “no matter which way you look at it.”
If she doesn’t do it at the U.S. Open next month, it will only get more unlikely. She has to hope that between now and late August she can somehow recondition and recover some of her pre-motherhood court speed.
She also has to hope that she gets the right draw. Williams has now made three Grand Slam final appearances with the Court record at stake, and in each case, she has met a player who had the match of her life. It’s a fact she accepts philosophically. “You just have to understand it was their day,” she said. But her day is not quite done yet.