When she won here last year, Williams held all four of the Grand Slam singles titles. Now she holds only Wimbledon’s.
Djokovic, her dancing partner at last year’s champions dinner, is the one on the history-making roll now. He’s the first man to hold all four major titles since Rod Laver in 1969 and the player with a chance to do what Williams could not quite manage last year by completing the Grand Slam and winning all four majors in the same calendar year.
I asked Williams what she might tell Djokovic after her unsuccessful chase last year, which ended two rounds short of the Grand Slam when she was stunned in the United States Open semifinals by Roberta Vinci.
“You know, he has every opportunity to do it,” she said. “I think he’ll get it easy, so he should be fine.”
Easy sounds unlikely, given the pressure and fatigue that will surely build up in a year that also features the Olympics.
Less than an hour after Djokovic won the French Open this month for his first Roland Garros title, the former star Henri Leconte walked past the Djokovic camp in the players’ lounge and said theatrically: “Two to go! Two to go! Oh, my God! Two to go!”
Marian Vajda, one of Djokovic’s coaches, laughed. This was Leconte, one of tennis’s class clowns, after all. Vajda, in typical fashion, then acknowledged the reality.
“Real Grand Slam, now we can think about it,” Vajda said. “This was a real mental breakthrough for Novak, to win in Paris. And now he needs to focus on going to Wimbledon fresh and going for the U.S. Open, and there’s obviously the Olympic Games in the middle, so it’s too many goals in a row. It makes it more complicated.”
More compelling, too, and all the more so because Djokovic surely never gave the Grand Slam too much serious thought earlier in his career. He was too preoccupied with leveling the playing field with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to think about outclassing the field to this degree.
Even Djokovic’s biggest supporters — his family — were not thinking about it. Vajda said he ran into Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, at a restaurant in Paris during the French Open. Srdjan was with a group of friends and asked Vajda to tell the group what Srdjan had told him when they first met.
“You told me he will be No. 1,” Vajda replied, “and I started laughing because I thought you were joking with me. And Novak’s father said: ‘No, I was not joking. I knew he was going to be No. 1, knew it, but I forgot one thing. I didn’t know he would be dominating so much in the tennis world one day.’ ”
But here Djokovic is, undoubtedly the world’s top player on all surfaces, with a 47-6 record against the top 10 during the past two seasons. He has done it, in part, by learning how to conserve his physical and emotional energy — unplugging from the game when necessary, which he did again before Wimbledon.
“Winning Roland Garros was obviously one of the most memorable and beautiful moments of my career,” said Djokovic, who will face James Ward of Britain in the opening match on Centre Court on Monday. “Also, it took a lot out of me. I thought that it’s more important for me to just rejuvenate and rest a little bit from tennis and then come back preparing for Wimbledon.”
He does not plan to overplay. Defend his title at Wimbledon, and it is entirely possible that he will play only the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and the United States Open in the two months that follow. But there are other temptations, including a Davis Cup quarterfinal versus Britain (and Andy Murray) in July and the Rogers Cup in Toronto, which could serve as a hardcourt warm-up for Rio.
The Grand Slam is such a rare prize that it bears sacrificing other worthy goals, as Williams is better placed than anyone to grasp. She has not been the same irresistible force since that loss to Vinci in September, and Wimbledon is full of ghosts as well as big victories for her.
Not that she remembers them all. On Sunday, she could not recall any of the details of her first appearance in 1998 (she retired in the third round versus Virginia Ruano Pascual of Spain). But she surely remembers losing to Sabine Lisicki in the fourth round in 2013 and to Alizé Cornet in the third round in 2014, just as she surely remembers beating Muguruza in straight sets last year to win her sixth Wimbledon singles title.
“This year, I don’t feel as much tension as I usually do,” she said. “Well, there’s some years that I haven’t felt any tension, either. I’m feeling pretty good. I don’t feel any pressure or stress.”
In truth, it was a challenge to sense what Williams was feeling on Sunday, and she will now let her racket do the talking, beginning with her first-round match on Tuesday versus Amra Sadikovic of Switzerland, 27, who retired in May 2014 but is now back for more and making her Grand Slam debut.
Williams, at 34, knows too well that life is full of such surprises, and surprise has been the rule of late in the women’s game, with the now-retired Flavia Pennetta, Kerber and Muguruza winning the past three major titles.
“Think about how many women now know that they have an opening,” said Pam Shriver, an ESPN analyst.
“During most of the Serena era, the players have felt there was no opening for them,” she continued, “so the question is, who is big enough to walk through it, especially at Wimbledon, where there’s more media and where you better have control of your breathing and know how to manage your nerves more than anywhere else? Because there’s a quietness and an aura about the place, and if you’re not firmly planted with two feet with your confidence, it will knock you off balance.”