By Steve Gorten
KEY BISCAYNE – It’s not uncommon these days for her to face an opponent who wasn’t born yet when she started her professional career.
Serena Williams is 33 years old.
Many of the women across the net, the players she regularly interacts with in lounges and locker rooms, are teenagers. You wonder if Williams, two decades into a historic tenure of tennis, feels old.
“I always look at it and I’m like, ‘I have been on the tour a hundred years,’” she joked.
No, she doesn’t feel 33, she said. She definitely doesn’t feel older than the rest of WTA players.
“I definitely listen to the same music,” Williams noted. “You know, I try to keep myself current. I say the current words like ‘fleek.’ I’m on top of it.”
Williams laughed as the last two sentences spilled out.
She has kept up with her peers in pop culture. Meanwhile, they’re all still chasing her on the court.
Twenty years after she turned pro, Serena Williams is atop the world rankings. She’ll begin her quest for an eighth Miami Open championship Friday night against Monica Niculescu, dealing with an ailing knee, but as imposing as ever.
“I mean, she’s 33. It’s impressive, you know?,” said the world’s fifth-ranked player and good friend Caroline Wozniacki. “Everyone can argue who’s the greatest player of all time, but Serena, if she’s not the greatest, she’s definitely one of them. What she’s done for the sport and how well she has been playing for so many years is impressive.”
“She’s my inspiration, because even though she’s the best player out there, she still wants to get better. She wants to achieve more.”
Said Ana Ivanovic, the world’s sixth-ranked player: “I really think she can reach her goal of Grand Slams and get the record. I really hope she can do that because she has the potential. Obviously it’s very tough to play against her, but it’s amazing for women’s tennis that we have someone so dominant.”
No player in tennis’ history has reigned in his or her 30’s like Williams. She captured her second consecutive Grand Slam, and 19th overall, at the Australian Open earlier this year – moving past Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert and within three of tying Steffi Graf’s Open Era record. Graf was 30 years old when she retired.
“I have a chance to get 20,” Williams said when asked if reaching Graf’s record was realistic for her. “There are a lot of young players that want to get one. I just literally – and I say this a lot – I just take it one at a time. If I start thinking too far in advance…and that’s what I did last year. I started thinking way far in advance and I couldn’t even get past the fourth round of a Grand Slam. I won two slams in a row after I changed my way of thinking.”
Williams pulled out of her most recent tournament, Indian Wells, prior to the semifinals. She refused a cortisone shot, but agreed to an anti-inflammation injection.
Wednesday, a short drive from the city she calls home and whose NFL team she partly owns, she tested out her hurt knee. She said she wouldn’t fully test it until her first match here, and she expects she’ll have to manage the pain throughout the tournament.
Williams said she doesn’t feel any pressure at the Miami Open as its seven-time champ.
“When I hit on the court [Wednesday]…there’s just something about Miami, you know,” she said. “So I was, like, ‘Oh, this is fun! I’m looking forward to just enjoying myself this year more than anything.”
At the same time, she noted, “I definitely don’t have low expectations.”
Sabine Lasicki said she doesn’t think the rest of the women’s field is thinking about the opportunity that a less-than-healthy Williams presents them.
Even if they get to face her, there’s uncertainty whether they want to do so.
Simona Halep, the world’s No. 3 player, said the rest of the tour doesn’t view Williams as untouchable. Halep called her “a great champion” and someone she greatly admires.
Williams, who surrendered just four sets while winning her first 11 matches this year prior to her injury, said she likely would have skipped this tournament if it wasn’t the Miami Open. She stepped on the court at Crandon Park Tennis Center on Wednesday and thought to herself, “I love this place.”
So she chose to ignore the pain for the next eight days. Sure, it might aggravate her injury, but she’s willing to throw caution to the wind. After all, it's what young people do.