By claiming her 17th grand slam singles title at the U.S. Open, Serena Williams now sits just one major title behind legends of the game Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, and five behind Steffi Graf, who holds the Open Era record of 22.
It now seems inevitable that she will at least tie and perhaps even surpass the numbers set by Navratilova and Evert, solidifying her place in the debate over who is the greatest of all time, but just how many more can she win?
When you try to estimate how many more wins an aging champion has left in them, the first step in the process is to quantify the pace of deterioration in said player’s game. Have they lost a step here, a few miles an hour off their serve there?
However, in defiance of her senior status in the game, Serena Williams actually appears to be moving better than she did in her twenties, and as for power, her fastest serve came at this year’s Australian Open, when she clocked 128.6 mph (207.6 kph) - just 0.4 mph shy of her sister Venus' world record.
It’s no exaggeration to say that at nearly 32 years old, Serena is physically fitter, technically better, psychologically tougher, and emotionally stronger than at any time during her remarkable career. And her results show it, having won nine titles so far this year, eclipsing her previous best of eight set back in 2002 during the peak of her powers, when she won the first three legs of the Serena Slam.
The second biggest factor in determining an aging player’s future is the quality of the next generation nipping at their toes.
When Serena burst onto the scene as a teenager in the late '90s, the women’s tour was overflowing with future Hall of Famers such as Graf, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, not to mention her older sister, who was starting to make serious waves in the game.
In the early 2000s, the depth of competition was equally deep, with Justine Henin, Jennifer Capriati, Kim Clijsters and Venus to contend with. And yet, during these times, Serena was able to carve her own place as one of the dominant players of the era.
These days her only real threat comes from Victoria Azarenka and, to a lesser extent, Maria Sharapova. And yet, between the two of them they share a combined five wins over Serena in 32 attempts. As for the rest of the world’s top 10, they combine for just four wins over Serena in 38 attempts.
In a nutshell, Serena is in a league above the current crop of contenders.
For many players her age, burnout is a factor which can a serious impact their ability to continue winning.
Fortunately for Serena, her tendency in previous years to play an abbreviated schedule, focusing on the major events, with relatively little attention on her ranking, has allowed her to develop a life outside of tennis, including ventures into fashion, business and the entertainment world.
She has also spent a good deal of time away from the game due to injury. The most recent, and most serious, keeping her away from the game for almost an entire year, during which time she spent time in hospital suffering with potentially life-threatening blood clots in her lungs.
Faced with the very real possibility that her career could have been over, Serena appears to have returned to the game with a newfound drive. The cliche goes, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, and for Serena, she seems to now fully appreciate what she has, and is striving to make the most of it.
With this new focus and appreciation for the game, Serena has already spoken out about her future, more than hinting that she’s already filled out the 2016 Olympics application form, signed the check and mailed it in, guaranteeing she’ll be around for at least another three years.
Of course, you can expect that at 35, Serena’s inevitable decline in fitness would be unavoidable, but with the best-of-three set format the women’s game plays at grand slams - unlike the men's five - she could probably still compete at the highest level at 70% of the strength and speed she currently exhibits.
Excluding the year she missed due to injury, Serena has averaged two grand slams a year since late 2008. If she were to continue that trend until the Olympics in 2016, she’ll have accumulated a total of 22, tying Steffi Graf for the most singles majors in the Open era.
While that seems like a daunting task for any player, identifying a factor which could stop is hard to pin down.
From here on in, the only obstacle standing between her 22 majors is her own body. She’s not been immune to injury in the past, and no player is ever immune from it in the future.
If she can stay healthy and manage her schedule well, I don’t see any reason why she cannot continue to win multiple majors each year between now and the Olympics. And who’s to say she’ll stop there?
Even if she never wins another match, she’ll go down as one of the all-time greats, but I for one don’t think she’s close to being done. Watch out Steffi, I think Serena’s got five more in her.