Doha: Serena Williams will complete another remarkable achievement if she can regain the world No 1 ranking at the Qatar Open, which starts on Monday.
The holder of 15 Grand Slam titles has not occupied the top spot for more than two and-a-half years after a series of injuries during 2010 and 2011 plunged her below the top 100, bringing predictions of a career end.
However, Williams was clearly the world’s best player again during the second half of last year, when she won the Wimbledon, Olympic, US Open and WTA Championship season-end titles.
The pinnacle seemed within reach until she was struck by multiple setbacks during last month’s Australian Open. Williams turned her right ankle in her opening round, hurt her back while running for a drop shot during her second and exited in the quarter-finals after one of the most startling defeats of her career, to Sloane Stephens, then outside the top 30. It was 31-year-old Williams’ first ever defeat to a younger American and also, she asserted, her “worst two weeks”.
It will have made her keener than ever to return to something nearer her true self during the $2,369,000 (Dh8,701,561) event in Doha, her first outing since that debacle.
She is seeded second, and could have a semi-final with Maria Sharapova, the French Open champion who gave her a very hard final in their last encounter, at the WTA Championships in Istanbul three months ago.
Sharapova has a particularly tough quarter, which contains two former Grand Slam winners in Samantha Stosur of Australia and Russia’s Svetlana Kuznetsova, and a former world No 1, Jelena Jankovic, of Serbia.
A further incentive is that Williams is only 355 ranking points behind Victoria Azarenka, the world No 1, and is offered leapfrogging opportunities by the 900 points which are awarded to the winner.
Much will depend on the extent of Williams’ physical recovery. She reckoned her condition was the worst it had ever been in a Grand Slam last month and she will want to show that she is not facing another injury-ravaged sequence. Her swollen ankle looked frighteningly large by the end of the tournament and if Williams has inhibitions about further damage it could make it hard to perform at her best.
But if she does she will quickly become the unofficial favourite. If she doesn’t, it may bring further suggestions that a changing of the guard is not far away, the surprising conclusion of a few commentators last month — apparently even of Chris Evert, her fellow American.
“I thought it would happen, but not in this match,” the 18-times former Grand Slam champion said of Stephens’ shock victory.
However, Williams has two weapons which seem unaffected by the passing of time — her service, with its smoothly economical action, perhaps the best of any woman’s in the history of the game, and her motivation. This, as her racket-smashing in Melbourne suggested, remains fierce.
Williams is also keen to carry on to emulate Evert’s Grand Slam total, even though this may mean competing increasingly often without the company of her sister Venus, so long her faithful supporter.
The elder sister’s withdrawal from Doha was caused by a lower back injury.
China’s Li Na is also an absentee with an ankle injury suffered in her Australian Open final defeat to Azarenka.
Stephens has recovered from the abdominal strain that caused her withdrawal from the Fed Cup at the weekend and she will play her first tournament as a top-20 player in Doha. She could be facing a last-16 match with Sharapova.