As she begins her bid for a calendar-year Grand Slam when the US Open begins on Monday, world number one Serena Williams feels the pressure of chasing history, but she accepts that pressure as the price for dominating a generation of women's tennis.
The 33-year-old American, who captured her first Grand Slam title at the 1999 US Open at age 17, is a huge favorite as she tries to complete the first calendar Slam since Steffi Graf in 1988 by winning her 22nd career major title. "I decided I prefer to have that pressure than the pressure of not winning," Williams said. "Not everyone can handle that pressure, but I'm OK with it. I would rather be in this position than another one."
Still, there's no doubt Williams is looking forward to seeing her designs in a New York fashion show a few days after the US Open. By then, the Grand Slam bid will be over, win or lose. "I'm ready. I'm so ready. I'm ready to get it over with," Williams said. "I don't care if I win or lose or break even. I'm ready to start it, get it over with, and be done and go on to the next event."
On the eve of the year's final Grand Slam event, Williams saw her path to the title eased with Russian third seed Maria Sharapova withdrawing due to a right leg injury. Sharapova, who had not played since losing this year's Wimbledon semi-finals to Williams, was the top-rated foe in Williams' half of the draw, a possible semi-final foe.
Williams seeks her fourth consecutive US Open title after having won this year's French and Australian Opens and Wimbledon as well as hard-court events in Miami and Cincinnati, the last US Open warm-up tournament, where she defeated Romania's Simona Halep in the final for a 69th career crown. "It gives me confidence to know that what I've been working on these past few days and weeks has been going very well," said Williams. "It also makes me realize the feeling of winning. I like that feeling and want to do the hard work."
Williams has won six Wimbledon, US Open and Australian Open titles and three French Open crowns to stand one shy of Steffi Graf's Open Era (since 1968) record of 22 Grand Slam singles trophies and only three shy of Australian Margaret Court's all-time record of 24. Not since Graf won the 1989 Australian Open after her 1988 calendar Slam has a woman won five Slams in a row, as Williams could.
Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams' coach, likes what he sees in his star pupil, especially her powerful serve. "She has probably got the best serve in the history of the women's game," he said. "Even when it's not perfect, it's still good enough to win. She has to continue to have faith in her serve."
Williams, who opens Monday night against Russia's Vitalia Diatchenko, will be the US Open top seed for a fourth time, having already won titles as top seed in 2002, 2013 and last year. Second seed Halep could be the toughest healthy foe in Williams' path. They can't meet until the final.
"I respect her for what she has already done and what she's doing, but I also have a desire to beat her," Halep said. "In Cincinnati I didn't believe enough I could beat her and win the match. I have to improve this. Next time I have to not think about I'm playing Serena and concentrate on winning."
Danish fourth seed Caroline Wozniacki, who lost to Williams in last year's final, and 2012 and 2013 US Open runner-up Victoria Azarenka of Belarus are both carrying leg injuries.
'It's all up to me'
In the end, Williams' toughest enemy might be herself and her mental ability to handle trouble during matches. "If I am playing well then hopefully no one (else) will win, but we'll see," Williams said. "It's all up to me. If I decide to play right, it'll be great."
Not since Australia's Samantha Stosur beat Williams in the 2011 final has Williams lost at the US Open. "No doubt she is going to be feeling the pressure," Stosur said. "You know she wants to get that calendar Slam. She's not immune to the nerves and pressure."