Serena Williams is sticking to her vow of silence on breaking Steffi Graf’s grand slam record but has warned rivals she is fit and raring to go on the eve of the Australian Open.
Williams needs just one more major triumph to move clear of Graf’s 22 Open era titles but time is running out for the American, who will turn 36 later this year.
Pressure has not always sat easy with Williams, who said earlier this month few athletes, of any discipline, have to handle the same level of expectation as she does on the tennis circuit.
Certainly the last time she found herself chasing one of Graf’s achievements, the calendar grand slam in 2015, she crumbled, losing to Roberta Vinci in the last four of the US Open when the title seemed firmly within her grasp.
On the subject of Graf’s grand slam tally therefore, Williams is staying tight-lipped. “Oh I’m not talking about that,” she said. “I’m just here to play and to win obviously, but just to play.”
Williams again arrives in Melbourne with some question marks hanging, not least regarding her fitness. The six-time Australian Open singles champion chose to sit out the final four months of 2016 to rest, after a shoulder problem had hampered her US Open bid, and recuperate, following a surprise semi-final defeat there to Karolina Pliskova.
That loss, combined with Angelique Kerber’s triumph at Flushing Meadows, also cost her her world No.1 ranking, meaning she faces Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic tomorrow as an unfamiliar No.2 seed.
It all amounts to Williams having a point to prove, which is often when she is at her best. “What do I need? I wouldn’t call it anger, but I would definitely say drive and focus,” Williams said. “What’s the word? Sacrifice? Yeah, sacrifices you definitely have to have.”
On her fitness, she added: “I had a little bit of a problem initially in the pre-season. I just did a ton of therapy and I was able to get a lot better.
“I felt that if I hadn’t have taken that time off, could have been bad for me.”
Williams played only eight tournaments and 44 competitive singles matches last year – for comparison, Kerber played 82 – and she plans to be selective again about her schedule in 2017.
“I definitely don’t want to play a lot,” Williams said.
Bencic, ranked 48th in the world, has had her own problems with injury but the 19-year-old is widely regarded as one of the brightest prospects on the women’s tour and represents a tricky opening test.
“I think it will be good for us both,” Williams said. “It’s never easy for me. All I can do is do my best.
“I didn’t come here to lose in the first round or the second round, or at all. If I can play the way I’ve been practising, it will be fine.”
Williams may also have an extra spring in her step at Melbourne Park after she recently announced her engagement to Alexis Ohanian, a co-founder of the news website Reddit. She used the website to describe the proposal.
“It’s been really great,” Williams said. “I’ve said from the beginning, I just didn’t want to think about it until after Australia because I was, like, ‘grand slams mean a lot to me so I’m not going to think about it’.
“It’s almost a little unreal right now because I haven’t taken it in. I’m being rather selfish and focused on my career.
“It was romantic. I’m actually just a really good writer, so if you guys want any tips, I’m around.”