Tennis fans are coming to terms with the very real possibility that Serena Williams might never break Margaret Court’s all-time grand slam titles record.
What seemed like a near-certainty just three years ago is now only an outside chance after Williams was forced to withdraw from the French Open before her second-round match.
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Williams has just turned 39 hasn’t won a grand slam since the 2017 Australian Open - the longest dry spell in her 22-year career.
“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 after withdrawing from the French Open.
This is the first year since 2006 that Williams has failed to make a grand slam final and the recent near-misses will hurt.
As Dave James of AFP wrote on Wednesday, “the clock is ticking.”
“An Achilles injury ended 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,” James wrote.
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.
Serena Williams misses perfect opportunity
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 No.1 and defending champion Ashleigh Barty, US Open winner Naomi Osaka, 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu as well as Swiss No.10 Belinda Bencic.
Second-seed Karolina Pliskova is playing, but suffered a shock loss to Jelena Ostapenko in the second round on Thursday.
At 39, Williams 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.
“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.
Serena Williams all-but done for rest of 2020
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 in Paris.
Williams, a three-time champion in Paris, had arrived at Roland Garros 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.
“I was struggling to walk and that is a tell-tale sign that I should try to recover.
“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 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.
“It's more than likely that I won't play another tournament this year.”
Seeing the Serena Williams news from the French Open and wondering if Margaret Court may not actually have a direct line "upstairs".— Bernard Zuel (@BernardZuel) September 30, 2020
On the other hand, it'd be poetic justice for Serena to tie the Grand Slam record on Margaret Court Arena.— Bryan Garcia (@BryanUF) September 30, 2020
This is a shame, as I really want Serena to beat Margaret Court's recordhttps://t.co/gzTZGsy0fT— Kevin (@windyourneckin) September 30, 2020
I am rooting for that 24th Grandslam for Serena. But looks like it far the more she try so hard. I want her to equal Margaret Court and surpass it. The question is, when will it happen? She is 38yrs now.— Sola (@_Oyinbo) September 30, 2020
serena withdrawing from the french open stings because it means we're that little bit further away from never having to hear about margaret court ever again lol— Dr Barrie Shannon (@BarrieShannon_) October 1, 2020
Serena Williams pulls out of The French Open due to achilles injury...Dawg,I aint even fronting when I say girl might be jinxed for that 24th grand slam title..she turned 39 on Sunday&in sports occasionally that does one no favors..Just want her to tie Margaret Court's 24 titles!— Derrick (@DerrickAshimwe) September 30, 2020
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