Serena Williams at Fed Cup practice in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
© Ron C. Angle
Serena Williams at the pre-draw press conference.
© Ron C. Angle
By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
KHARKIV, Ukraine – For Serena Williams, there are not many firsts left for her to achieve in her tennis career. She has 13 Grand Slam singles titles, 12 Grand Slam doubles titles, two Olympic gold medals in doubles (in 2000 and 2008 with Venus) and the list goes on and on for a career that is surely going to land her in the International Tennis Hall of Fame someday as one of the greatest players in history.
There is one trophy she does not have, though: An Olympic gold medal in singles. With the 2012 Olympic Games in London now less than 100 days away, is a singles gold her main goal for the year? Not necessarily. She wants to win gold, no question, although which event it is in is not nearly as important, or perhaps not even as important, as winning a Grand Slam for the first time since 2010.
"I think it is more huge for the media for me to win singles," Williams said. "For me, any medal is great. If I win singles, it would be awesome. If I win doubles, it would be awesome, or if I win mixed. I think winning a gold medal would be awesome, but I definitely want to win a Grand Slam, which would be awesome, too. It is so hard to choose (which she would rather win)."
With the way Williams, currently ranked No. 9, has been playing, it seems she could be an easy favorite for singles in London, where the Games are being played at the All England Club at Wimbledon, a place where she has won five titles, including her last Grand Slam crown two years ago.
She came to the U.S. vs. Ukraine Fed Cup World Group Playoff in Kharkiv, Ukraine, this week fresh off her first WTA Tour title run of the season in Charleston, which she won after completely dominating 2011 US Open champion Sam Stosur in the semifinals and Lucie Safarova in the final, losing just three games in both matches.
The title was the 40th of her career and put her just behind sister Venus and Kim Clijsters in career titles among active players.
She is hoping to keep up that level of play, dominating with her serve and keeping unforced errors to a minimum, throughout her Fed Cup matches this weekend, the clay-court season and for as long as possible. Playing her best only increases her confidence, which could be scary for her competitors this weekend and on the tour coming up, where she has few equals amongst her peers when she plays at her top level.
"It does help with confidence, and I think, at this point, it is all about having a lot of confidence," she said of her win in Charleston." I felt good about that, and I want to keep that up. Whether I win or lose, as long as I can keep playing the way I was playing will be pretty cool."
Against the Ukrainian team this weekend, which does not feature a singles player ranked inside the top 100, the matches will be played on outdoor red clay, a good preparation for the start of the European clay-court season for Serena and the entire team. Serena is a perfect 9-0 in her Fed Cup career and will be the heavy favorite in both her singles matches Saturday and Sunday as the U.S. looks to return to the World Group in 2013 with a victory over Ukraine.
In Fed Cup, where she also won two singles matches in the U.S.’s World Group II win over Belarus in February, she plays for U.S. Fed Cup Captain Mary Joe Fernandez, who is also the U.S. women’s Olympic coach.
Just who will be on the Olympic team, however, will not be determined until June, with 56 men and 56 women gaining direct acceptance to the singles event, based on rankings the week of June 11. The International Tennis Federation also has six wild-card entries that it will award.
The U.S. can send six men and six women to London, but just four on each team can be singles players. From those six, the U.S. can have a maximum of two men’s and women’s doubles teams and two mixed doubles teams, with this being the first Olympic event to feature a mixed competition.
After battling a foot injury the second half of 2010, which required multiple surgeries, and then dealing with a blood clot and hematoma early last year that kept her off the WTA Tour until last June, Serena has no points to defend until Eastbourne, so her place on the Olympic team is hardly in doubt. And while she is open to playing three Olympic events and would like to play women’s doubles or mixed doubles, those selections are based on recommendations from Fernandez and men’s coach Jay Berger to the USTA Olympic Selection Oversight Committee.
A few of the American men, including John Isner and Andy Roddick, have mentioned they would like to play the inaugural mixed event with Serena, and that is not even considering the world No. 1 doubles players Bob and Mike Bryan as other choices.
Serena does own two career mixed doubles Grand Slam titles, but none since 1998. Just whom would she play with? It would be a tough choice between great players and her friends, but the answer is whichever teams are best for the U.S.
"It definitely helps that it is right after Wimbledon; it is a comfortable court," she said. "I love John. He is a great player. He is doing so well, and we are both actually ranked No. 9 now. You can’t break the guy.
"Andy is probably my closest friend on the tour, and he is just a great person. I don’t know, we’ll see," she added of whom she could play with. "The Bryans are awesome, too. They are No. 1, and you can’t beat playing with the Bryan brothers. It is a really tough choice. I would have to get with the captain and, if I played mixed, see who they would want me to play with and not make the decision for me."
After battling an ankle injury earlier this year, which caused her to pull out of Brisbane and affected her during the Australian Open, where she lost in the fourth round, Serena only feels slight pain in the ankle. She is mostly healthy now and will be playing during the European clay-court season for the first time since 2010. She did not play on the WTA Tour on clay at all in 2011.
Venus’ health for the rest of the season and potentially the Olympics is more of a question, as she is still in the beginning stages of her comeback from the fatigue-causing Sjogren’s Syndrome. The two have not played doubles at a Grand Slam since 2010, when they won both the Australian Open and Roland Garros, but if they were to team up for the third time at the Olympics, their lack of recent competition together would hardly be a problem.
"It depends what team goes," she said of what events she will play. "We don’t know what team is going to go yet. Obviously, Venus and I are excellent at playing doubles. It is like riding a bike. It is unbelievable playing with her, but we’ll see. We play really well together. We haven’t played in awhile, but we do practice a lot."
Serena has said her gold medals are among her favorite things. She keeps one gold medal in her house in Florida and the other at her house in California and has them tucked away so they remain safe.
And while the Games are approaching, it still seems a distance away to Serena, who would like to win in Fed Cup and a few titles before then, most notably, a Slam.
"For me, 100 days seems so far away," she said of her thoughts now. "I want it to be now. It is so close but still so far away."
And for this weekend, her focus will be on Fed Cup, where the teams are playing at the Superior Golf Resort and Spa. Like her teammates Christina McHale, Liezel Huber, Sloane Stephens and Jamie Hampton, Serena is excited about the personalized golf carts that each member of the team received to move about the grounds, but don’t expect her to take up a game of golf any time soon.
"It is a great facility, and everyone is so nice here," she said. "I really feel extremely comfortable, and I love the fact that we have a golf cart because I hate walking. I can pretty much drive everywhere. It is a lot easier.
"I don’t really play golf," she added when asked if she plays. "I used to when I was younger, but I was never really good at it, so I stuck with tennis."
A wise decision.