NEW YORK — Despite everything Serena Williams has won and done, her sense of self can still fluctuate based on the outcome of a match.
It doesn't always seem to matter that she owns a record-tying 22 major singles titles heading into the U.S. Open, which begins today. It's not necessarily a big deal to her that she has spent the past 31/2 years entrenched at No. 1 and at 34 is the oldest woman to top the WTA rankings. And at times she forgets that she transcends her sport and has become a cultural icon.
Williams is devastated when she is dealt a setback, such as last year's loss to No. 43 Roberta Vinci in the U.S. Open semifinals, a defeat that ended her bid for the first calendar-year Grand Slam in more than 25 years. Williams said she measures herself constantly, "which I don't think is normal. I definitely feel like when I lose, I don't feel as good about myself."
"But then I have to, like, remind myself that: 'You are Serena Williams!' " Williams continued, laughing. "And it's those moments that I have to just, like, come off and be like, 'Serena, do you know what you've done? Who you are? What you continue to do, not only in tennis (but also) off the court? Like, you're awesome.' That really just shows the human side of me. I'm not a robot."
After equaling Steffi Graf for the most major titles in the Open era (from 1968) by winning Wimbledon last month, Williams can earn No. 23 in New York. Only Margaret Court owns more major titles, with 24, but more than half of them came against amateur competition. Not that Williams was ready to think about topping Graf: "One thing I learned about last year is to enjoy the moment. I'm definitely going to enjoy this."
Not everything has gone smoothly for Williams since Wimbledon. Slowed by a bothersome right shoulder, she lost in the third round of singles and first round of doubles at this month's Olympics — she was the 2012 gold medalist in both — and then pulled out of a hardcourt tuneup event in Ohio.
On the men's side: Novak Djokovic is the No. 1 seed and undisputed No. 1 player, but the defending champion comes to New York after losing in Wimbledon's third round and the Olympics' first round, and pulling out of the Ohio tournament with a sore left wrist. Andy Murray won Wimbledon and successfully defended his Olympic title. "Novak … the last two years, really, has played amazing tennis," Murray said. "What I've done for, like, the last four months, he's been doing for … the whole year. So I need to try and keep that going."