A brush with death has given Serena Williams a ruthless new perspective on tennis as she eyes a sixth Australian Open crown in Melbourne.
Only injury, illness or some other misfortune can seemingly stop Serena Williams netting a sixth Australian Open crown and catching Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert on the all-time grand slam leaderboard.
Williams’ brush with death in 2011 has given her a ruthless new perspective and the world No.1 has been in fierce pursuit of Steffi Graf’s open-era record of 22 singles majors ever since.
Fighting for life in hospital after suffering a pulmonary embolism, Williams – then a part-time player dabbling in a fashion design – resolved to squeeze every ounce out of her god-given tennis talents.
Three-and-a-half years on and Williams has won four of the past six slams to take her tally to 17, one less than Navratilova and Evert, five shy of Graf’s haul and possibly even within striking distance of Australian Margaret Smith Court’s all-time record of 24 career majors.
Navratilova this week claimed it was “inevitable” Williams would surpass her and challenge Graf and Smith Court after the world No.1 followed up her 11-title 2013 assault with more crushing wins over Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova at the season-opening Brisbane International.
They may be ranked two and three in the world, but Williams – even at 32 – continues to hold a decisive mental and physical edge over her two supposed closest challengers, leading Azarenka 14-3 head-to-head and tormenting Sharapova 15-2 in a 10-year unbeaten run against the Russian.
Sharapova has lost their past 14 meetings, prompting her to admit in Brisbane she needs to beat Williams once in a while for their match-up to be considered a rivalry.
“If I want to have a chance to beat Serena, I have to get myself in the match and I have to raise my level,” Sharapova said.
“These what champions do. I mean, she’s raised her level so much in the last couple of years.
“If you want to be right there, you have to do that as well.”
Champion in 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2010, Williams missed 2011 with injury and was hindered by ankle problems the past two years when Azarenka reigned.
The Belarusian admits she’d love to meet Williams in this year’s final, but is taking nothing for granted in her hat-trick tilt.
“Going back, I have great memories,” Azarenka said.
“I know it’s going to be a long road. It’s going to be a tough tournament, as usual. We have such high level of competition starting from the first round.”
Williams revelled in reaffirming her dominance over Azarenka and Sharapova in Brisbane and issued a warning to her challengers.
“I’m happy I was able to play both Maria and Victoria because they brought their A games against me,” she said.
“It was a great test. It showed me where my level was and I feel like I definitely have some room for improvement … I know now what I need to do for Melbourne. I look forward to it.”
Even if, privately, most of her peers don’t.
Two-time runner-up and world No.4 Li Na also has a dreadful one-from-11 record against Williams, while world No.5 Agnieszka Radwanska heads to Melbourne under an injury cloud and down on form after crashing out in the opening match of her Sydney International title defence.
One player capable of threatening Williams is world No.6 Petra Kvitova, the former Wimbledon champion who appreciates the faster conditions at Melbourne Park in 2014.