Nino Severino: How Serena Williams can reclaim her place at the top of world tennis
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In his latest column, Nino Severino looks at the struggles of tennis icon Serena Williams – and suggests how she can reclaim her place at the top of the sport.
The Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of the year in Melbourne, is over.
It's a tournament I know very well, making the trip every year with Elena to compete for Great Britain. It's a surface Elena liked to play on, and achieved some great results, so I have some great memories of Melbourne.
As every year, the tournament in 2020 has delivered some incredible stories, and I have focused in on the age gap between the winner of the ladies' final, Sofia Kenin, and arguably the best player that has ever graced the tennis court, Serena Williams.
Sofia, at the age of 21, has won her first Grand Slam, and is now America's number one female tennis player, while Serena is 38-years-old and has an incredible 23 Grand Slam titles to her name. But Sofia comes away from Melbourne flying high, while Serena comes away having lost in the third round and in four major finals since giving birth to her daughter in September 2017.
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Her coach Patrick Mouratoglou said: "We have to accept the fact that it is not working, maybe come back with a different angle, a different strategy and different goals so she can make it. She does feel positive, she feels negative too because it is a failure when she doesn't win a Grand Slam.
"We have to face reality, but she is positive that she can make it, otherwise she probably wouldn't be on a tennis court anymore. She believes she can make it and I believe it too. She's not that far, but we have to change a few things."
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Mouratoglou is a seasoned coach, and known worldwide for his achievements, but personally I think he is being tough on himself and Serena. I watched Patrick over many years on the World Tour, he is one of the most experienced coaches, but sometimes, as a coach, you get so engrossed, so close to the athlete, that the truth can sometimes become a bit blurry, even distorted.
When you study this situation, it's not just Serena who will be feeling the pressure - believe me, Patrick will also be feeling it as well.
He has been guiding and supporting Serena since 2012, she has won 10 of her 23 Grand Slam titles with him by her side, together they have experienced the best that sport can offer.
When you're used to being out in the sunshine of victory, the switch to being cold, confused, nervous and not knowing what the future has to offer can be a very uncomfortable place. Patrick has worked with the best female player in history, and now he must test his skills in a very different way.
Serena said after her loss in Melbourne: "I made far too many errors to be a professional athlete." That's true, but for me, it does not take away from the fact that she is the best player that history has to offer, and this level of quality simply does not vanish.
History tells us that there are many athletes who compete at the elite level well into their 40's - Tiger Woods, George Foreman, Martina Navratilova, Randy Couture, Bernard Hopkins and Dara Torres all had success in their fifth decade.
And compared to these athletes, Serena is a mere baby! Patrick talks about coming back with a different angle but, for me, this is nothing to do with tennis specific skills - the limiting factor here is not Serena's tennis ability. She is a prolific striker of the ball, has an incredible serve, and still boasts world class physicality.
I think Patrick will find the solution in the list of non-specific tennis limiting factors, I don't think for one minute he is going to change her serve, try to teach her different patterns of play, or morph her game into the style of a player who slices, hits loopy balls and comes to the net.
Patrick will be smart enough to know that "the different angle" - as he puts it - will be in the way Serena perceives her tennis world, what she is thinking, how she is feeling, and how she is reacting. For me, this is where the form lies.
There's a scene in Rocky 3, when Apollo Creed, the former world champion, is coaching Rocky after he's been defeated by Clubber Lang.
Creed takes Rocky to a gym where he trained as a youngster - a rough, tough neighbourhood, with young, hardened fighters. Apollo turns to Rocky and tells him "see that look in their eyes Rock?" He was trying to tell him, what drove him originally was not there anymore, and he said "you've got to get that look back Rock, eye of the tiger man, eye of the tiger".
Serena, even at 38-years-old, still has the power that young players coming through can only dream of, she still strikes the ball with incredible pace, she just needs to re-connect with the mindset that told her she could beat anyone - once this happens, she will, in the words of Creed, once again have the 'eye of the tiger.'
Patrick will help Serena to find this place, I have no doubt. And when that happens, the youngsters who are currently keeping her throne warm must be on their guard - because this lioness will be back on the hunt for that 24th Grand Slam title and her place at the very top of tennis!