Amid Australian Open upsets, Serena Williams as reliable as ever

Sofia Kenin, looking to defend her Australian Open singles title, was in tears after losing in straight sets to Kaia Kanepi in the second round on Thursday.

“I feel like everyone was always asking me, ‘Would you want to [defend the title]?” she said about the overwhelming pressure she had felt heading into the tournament. “Do you see yourself getting there and winning again? Obviously I said yes. Yeah, I mean, with the way I’m playing, no.”

A day earlier, 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu was sent home after a straight-sets loss against Su-Wei Hsieh. Two-time major champion Petra Kvitova was handed the same “painful” fate, confessing she just couldn’t find her best level of tennis.

But despite the trouble by other seeded players, as well as the glaring sun and humid conditions, a certain 23-time Grand Slam champion has stayed the course. Serena Williams enters her third-round match against Anastasia Potapova (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App) having won both of her matches in straight sets.

Since she returned in 2018 following the birth of her daughter, much of the attention has been focused on Williams’ quest for her 24th major title. Lost in that pursuit has been her overwhelming consistency in producing deep runs in Slams. The 39-year-old has reached four finals, a semifinal and a quarterfinal in just 10 events. No one has reached more of any of those stages during that time frame.

Considering she withdrew from the French Open in 2018 and 2020 ahead of matches due to injuries, it makes it all the more impressive.

“She’s arguably the greatest player of all time, and when you’re the greatest of all time, you know how to win and win and win,” four-time major doubles champion and current ESPN analyst Rennae Stubbs said. “It’s not foreign to you; it’s the expectation of reality. She has been the most consistent player in Grand Slam play over the last two years of all women.”

Men’s tennis has seen the same names dominate the sport for almost two decades, as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have racked up major title after major title. The trio owns 57 of the 69 trophies won since Wimbledon in 2003. With the exception of Andy Murray, no other player has been ranked No. 1 in 17 years.

It’s been a markedly different scenario in women’s tennis. Williams has been the prevailing presence for much of that span — at one point winning four of her major titles consecutively, starting with the 2014 US Open. Currently ranked No. 11, Williams has been the top player in the world for 319 weeks throughout her career, including 186 in a row. Prior to her maternity leave beginning in 2017, she had a staggering 23-6 record in major finals.

Since she won her last Slam trophy, at the Australian Open in 2017, there have been 11 different major winners in 14 events with Simona Halep and Naomi Osaka as the only players to record multiple titles. Nine of those champions, including Kenin, were first-time major winners. It has been an unpredictable era — three victors were unseeded entering their respective tournaments — and almost impossible to predict.

“It’s been somewhat contagious for players to see others win Slams and make them believe they then in turn can do it too,” 21-time major doubles champion and ESPN analyst Pam Shriver said. “They think, ‘If Jelena Ostapenko can win the [2017] French or Sloane Stephens the [2017] US Open, why can’t it be me?’ When you look at the number of women who’ve won majors, or have been to a final or a recent semi, you just have to think, ‘Who’s going to be the player to feel it over these two weeks?'”

Iga Swiatek, who won the French Open in October ranked outside of the top 50, acknowledged the instability during her first news conference as champion, and vowed to do her part to change it.

“I think this is what women’s tennis is struggling with,” she said. “That’s why we have so many new Grand Slam winners — because we are not as consistent as Rafa, Roger, and Novak.

“That’s why my goal is going to be to be consistent. It’s going to be really hard to achieve that.”

“She has been the most consistent player in Grand Slam play over the last two years of all women.”

ESPN analyst Rennae Stubbs on Serena Williaams

Williams made her major return at Roland Garros in 2018, withdrawing ahead of her fourth-round match, but rolled at Wimbledon soon after. She dropped just one set and hadn’t missed a step until her 6-3, 6-3 final loss to Angelique Kerber.

At the US Open less than two months later, she was dominant throughout — again just losing one set as she made her way to the final — and then lost in the championship match to Osaka. Since then, she has faced intense scrutiny over her perceived inability to win at the biggest moments with history on the line.

She reached the finals at Wimbledon and the US Open again in 2019, but once more, couldn’t close the deal. She made the quarterfinals at the Australian Open in 2019 and the semifinals at the 2020 staging of the US Open.

But while she didn’t take home the coveted trophy at any of the tournaments, that’s still six appearances in the quarterfinals or better in 10 events (eight that was she was healthy enough to continue playing in), and two more than anyone else during that stretch. Halep and Elina Svitolina each have four appearances.

There is one player, however, who has come close to matching Williams’ steadiness. Osaka trails in finals appearance since 2018 with three, but has won all of them for the most titles in that span. She had a methodical straight-set victory of her own over former World No. 4 Caroline Garcia during a primetime night match on Rod Laver Arena on Wednesday.

“For so many years, or at least the last 12 since Justine Henin retired the first time [in 2008], it’s really been just Serena who has lived comfortably in that role as a champion,” Shriver said. “It seemed like there was no one else who could do anything after they did well in a major for a long time, but I think we’re starting to see Osaka show she can do it too. With the back-to-back wins and then a year-and-a-half later at the [2020] US Open, she made such a statement.”

For now, it’s Williams who remains the one expected to make a run deep into the second week, as she so often does, no matter how many of the other seeds continue to crash early. She will next face Anastasia Potapova in the third round on Friday with her sights focused on winning No. 24 this month in Melbourne.

“It [all] just shows you how unbelievably consistent she is,” Stubbs said, “and a lot of people want to see her get that [Grand Slam] record. And it wouldn’t surprise me if she does it here.”

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