Melbourne, Australia • One by one, Serena Williams is matching the feats of tennis’ greatest legends.
Her next challenge comes at the Australian Open, which starts Monday with Williams seeking her 18th Grand Slam title — an accomplishment that would match Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.
O First round
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"It would mean a lot to be on the same level as such great players," Williams said in a pre-tournament news conference Saturday, quickly adding a dash of humility. "I still have a lot of work to do. I obviously want to reach that level, but I’m not there yet."
"Hopefully, I’ll get there," she added.
The No. 1-ranked, No. 1-seeded player is entering the new season after a spectacular year. In 2013, Williams won 78 of her 82 matches including the French Open and the U.S. Open. She earned more than $12 million in prize money, a record for women’s tennis.
At 32, an age where most professional players are in decline, Williams is playing the best tennis of her career, says Navratilova, who predicts that Williams will win in Melbourne and go on to eclipse Steffi Graf’s 22 major titles in the Open era.
"If she can stay healthy, there’s no doubt she can go into the 20s. The sky is the limit," Navratilova said earlier this week.
In terms of Grand Slam titles, no woman playing professional tennis today comes close. In a distant second place is Williams’ big sister, Venus, who won seven major titles during a career that is now waning because of age, injuries and an autoimmune disease that saps her energy. Venus’ last Grand Slam win came at Wimbledon in 2008.
No. 2 Maria Sharapova, a four-time Grand Slam winner, is coming back after playing just one post-Wimbledon match in 2013 due to hip and shoulder injuries.
She sat out the last two months of the 2013 season and says she is still nursing her shoulder with "precautionary" anti-inflammatories at times.
"I’m happy to be back playing a Grand Slam," said Sharapova, who tore her rotator cuff in two places in 2008, requiring surgery that kept her off the tour for nearly a year. "I’m happy to get myself back in form and really start well here."
The player who is considered the greatest threat to Williams is No. 2 Victoria Azarenka, the two-time Australian Open defending champion. Williams has defeated Azarenka in 14 of their 17 matches — but Azarenka has excelled more recently in Melbourne where Serena has won five titles but none since 2010.
Asked why she has stumbled in Melbourne in recent years, Williams half-joked: "I just wasn’t able to stay on two feet. Literally."
Last year, Williams tumbled to the court in her first-round match after turning her right ankle. She was then upset in the quarterfinals by Sloane Stephens.
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