London - Serena Williams finds herself
under siege from revitalised rivals and an army of doubters as the defending
champion starts her bid for a seventh Wimbledon title and a record-equalling
22nd Grand Slam crown.
Since she walked off Wimbledon's Centre
Court cradling the Venus Rosewater Dish awarded to the women's champion nearly
12 months ago, Williams has found herself engaged in a losing battle with the
That Wimbledon final victory over Garbine
Muguruza meant Williams had won all three of the year's major titles, putting
her within touching distance of becoming the first woman to secure a calendar
Grand Slam since Steffi Graf in 1988.
But Williams' historic bid came to stunning
end in the US Open semi-finals when she was beaten by 300-1 outsider Roberta
In the aftermath of that chastening
September day in New York, Williams has appeared a more vulnerable figure.
For so long, Williams' power game and
competitive instincts intimidated opponents into submission, but this year she
has won only one of her five tournaments, in Rome in May, while enduring a pair
of shock defeats in the Australian and French Open finals.
There is a growing sense the emotional
scars from the US Open haven't fully healed for Williams and Germany's
Angelique Kerber took advantage to shock her in Melbourne in January, while
Spain's Muguruza avenged her Wimbledon loss by beating Serena in Paris earlier
Falling at the final hurdle twice this year
has left Williams still stuck on 21 Grand Slam titles - one short of Graf's
Open era record of 22 and three behind the all-time record of 24 set by
Margaret Court - ahead of Wimbledon, which gets underway on Monday.
The 34-year-old is the oldest woman to be
ranked number one in the world and, with off-court interests including the
fashion industry and a recent appearance in a video for pop-star Beyonce's
'Lemonade' single, critics have claimed Serena is no longer so focused on her
tennis in the twilight of her glittering career.
Given Williams compiled a remarkable 53-3
match record in 2015, even she had to admit 2016 has been a disappointment by
her sky-high standards.
"Not as great as I want it to
be," Williams said when asked to assess her year so far. "I could do
better. But honestly, that's how I felt about 2015."
In the circumstances, Williams will be
relieved to feel grass under her feet as she returns to the venue where she won
the first of her six Wimbledon titles in 2002.
"I've had people put me down because I
didn't look like them," Williams said in a recent documentary.
"I've had people look past me because
of the colour of my skin. I've had people overlook me because I was a woman.
I'm still going."
With Maria Sharapova absent as she appeals
against a two-year ban for doping, the main challengers for Serena's crown
should be second ranked Muguruza, former Wimbledon finalist Agnieszka Radwanska
and the likes of Kerber, Simona Halep and Victoria Azarenka, who defeated
Williams in the Indian Wells final in March.
Muguruza, who last year became the first
Spanish woman to reach the Wimbledon final since 1994, is the pick of the bunch
after winning her maiden Grand Slam title in such composed and combative
fashion at Roland Garros.
The Venezuela-born 22-year-old's first
round exit in last week's Mallorca Open was a setback but she is now fully
focused on Wimbledon.
"The truth is I'm disappointed, but
now I'm just training harder to arrive ready for Wimbledon," Muguruza
"It feels like ages since I last
stepped on grass, but it brings me great memories, even though it isn't a
surface I've always liked.
"I've learned to love it more lately
and then reaching the final at Wimbledon, that was something so special."