By Jocelyn Gecker
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.
“It would mean a lot to be on the same level as such great players,” Williams said in a 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 pro 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.
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 waning because of age, injuries and an autoimmune disease. 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 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 sidelined her for 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 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.
Williams got a strong start to the new season, with back-to-back wins over Sharapova and Azarenka this month in Brisbane. She beat Sharapova in the semifinals and overcame Azarenka in the final.
In Melbourne, Williams will only get the chance to play one of them. Azarenka and Sharapova are on the opposite side of the draw from Williams and could end up playing in the semifinals.
Sharapova’s first-round match is against Bethanie Mattek-Sands on Tuesday, when Azarenka faces Johanna Larsson of Sweden.
Williams has 2011 U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur and two-time Australian finalist Li Na in her half of the draw.
On Monday, she plays 153rd-ranked Australian Ashleigh Barty, 17,who was trying to look on the bright side.
“I’m just going to go out there and enjoy it,” Barty said. “Not every day do you get the opportunity to play the No. 1 player in the world and one of the greatest champions of all time. I’m really excited for the challenge.”