At the start of 2015, Serena Williams, the No. 1 tennis player in the world and karaoke enthusiast, made headlines across the world.
No, she didn't break another record. No, she didn't win a tournament. No, she didn't hit the fastest serve in the world. No, she didn't yell at a lineswoman or have a wardrobe malfunction or go out on a date with Drake.
She simply ordered a shot of espresso. That's all it took.
Of course, it's not like she waited in line at Starbucks like the rest of us. Rather, she asked for the espresso after she had been bageled in the first set of her first match of 2015 by Italian Flavia Pennetta in an exhibition at Hopman Cup in Perth, Australia.
Because she's Serena Williams, the tournament referees obliged, and Serena was able to drink her pick-me-up during a changeover. She perked right up and ended up winning the second set and serving up a bagel of her own in the third set. (Apparently her espresso was a bit more powerful than the ones I usually have!)
By the time Serena walked off the court, she had gone viral. It was the shot of espresso heard around the world.
She didn't seem too amused by all the hullabaloo.
Hey everyone I keep telling you I am like you normal, average human being. I need my coffee or expresso in the mornings too. #GoingForOneNow- Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) January 6, 2015
That's right, you guys. Serena is a normal, average human being -- one that just happens to be tied with Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert at second on the all-time list with 18 Grand Slam singles titles to her name. Starting next week at the Australian Open, she'll begin her quest for No. 19.
She has been candid (recently, at least) about her desire to chase down Steffi Graf's 22 Slams. While it's a tough task, particularly at the age of 33, there are many (myself included) who think that she has a good shot at getting there. But to keep hope alive, she needs to add to her tally sooner rather than later.
Despite the fact that Serena is the current WTA No. 1, and coming off of a season where she won seven titles, including the U.S. Open and WTA Finals, there are questions surrounding her as the tennis world converges Down Under for the first major of the year.
First of all, there's her Hopman Cup performance, which post-espresso shot sets aside, was far from inspiring. She was beaten soundly by last year's WTA break-out star Eugenie Bouchard (who told reporters after their match, "Maybe she needed another coffee.") and lost in the final to Poland's Agnieszka Radwanska. She looked sluggish and out of rhythm even in the matches that she won.
However, putting too much stock in Hopman Cup results would be an exercise in futility. While the athletes certainly take the event seriously, it is a team event played in round-robin format, and it's technically an exhibition, meaning no WTA or ATP points can be earned during the tournament. It's not meaningless, but it's hardly a Grand Slam atmosphere.
But there are other reasons for concern, mainly because Serena hasn't been at her best in Australia in quite a few years. She's won the tournament five times, but her last triumph was in 2010. She's played three of the last four years (she missed '11 due to injury), losing in the fourth round to No. 56 Ekaterina Makarova in '12, in the quarterfinals to No. 25 Sloane Stephens in '13 and in the fourth round to No. 14 Ana Ivanovic last year.
She was dealing with injuries in most of those losses, but she's won Slams with nagging injuries before. The truth is, whether it's bad timing, bad luck or simply bad form, Serena hasn't played her best tennis in Melbourne in recent years.
This year, there's even less margin for error than usual. Age has something to do with it, of course -- Serena used to be able to show up on any given day and bully anyone off of the court with her power and precision, but as the body and mind get older, it gets harder to snap into world-beater mode. We saw that last year, when she fell before the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon before taking the crown in New York.
However, the competition in the WTA is as deep as it's been in years, and it's no longer just about Serena anymore. Now, don't get me wrong, her best is still the best, but there are now a plethora of talented players who are capable of taking advantage of any opening she gives them.
Maria Sharapova hasn't beaten Serena in over a decade, but the Russian is ranked No. 2 in the world right now and already has one title under her belt in 2015. Her game matches up horribly against Serena, but if Andy Roddick was able to take down Roger Federer a couple of times late in his career, there's no reason why an in-form Sharapova can't get the best of Serena again.
Right behind Sharapova in the rankings is Simona Halep, the 22-year-old who announced herself as an elite talent last year. With a game that mirrors Kim Clijsters -- who gave Serena plenty of trouble in her prime -- Halep has all of the agility, craftiness and power to rattle the legend. In fact, the Romanian handed Serena the worst loss of her career at the WTA Finals last fall, 6-0, 6-2.
Lingering next in the top five is two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and 2008 French Open champion and former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic, both of whom are playing some of the best tennis of their careers. Kvitova is one of the few players on tour, past or present, who can match Serena's powerful ground-strokes and serving. The Czech lefty hasn't yet beaten Serena, but their matches are always extremely tight and it feels like only a matter of time. Ivanovic, meanwhile, took out Serena in Melbourne last year and played the 18-time major champion very closely in their four other battles in '14.
The there's Radwanska at No. 6 and Bouchard at No. 7, who both just defeated Serena at Hopman Cup, followed by Serena's best friend Caroline Wozniacki sitting at No. 8. While Serena leads their head-to-head 10-1, Wozniacki took Serena deep into the third set in three of their four matches in 2014. (The fourth match was the U.S. Open final, which Serena won, 6-3, 6-3.)
The remaining players in the top 10, Angelique Kerber and Makarova, both have beaten Serena on hard courts before. There are a lot of lower-ranked players who can give Serena fits too, most notably her sister Venus, who is currently at No. 19, and former No. 1 and two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, who is unseeded and on the comeback from injury.
Right now, the WTA is a fascinating mix of talented youngsters such as Halep and Bouchard who are announcing themselves as true major contenders, former No. 1s such as Wozniacki and Ivanovic who have revitalized their careers, and perennial top-10ers such as Radwanska, Kvitova and Sharapova who are trying to maximize their potential.
Knowing that she's running out of years to win majors -- not a judgment, merely a fact -- Serena is going to have to find a way to summon her best gear if she's going to chase down Steffi. But for now at least, Serena is still the leader of the pack.
We've seen Serena evolve a lot over the years. From the scrappy teenage prodigy with braces and beads to a cat-suited queen pursuing the Serena Slam, the out-of-shape part timer to the unstoppable fitness machine, the frustrated and angry former champion to the sappy and sentimental returning one, the world has watched and dissected her every move during every phase of her life.
Now, we're seeing the culmination of all of the different Serenas that we have known over the years. No longer the brash outsider, she now fosters friendships with her competitors and champions the next generation. There is no doubt (even from the most skeptical fans) about her week in, week out commitment to the sport -- in 2014, she actually played better at the smaller tournaments than she did at the majors. She embraces the history of the WTA, and appreciates the part she's playing in it. She loves tennis in a deeply ingrained, can't-live-without-it way that shows in her forehands, focus and even frustration on the court. Despite the overriding of urgency late in her career, Serena does everything with a bit more grace at the age of 33 -- even losing. Just, whatever you do, don't mistake that grace for satisfaction.
Serena has nothing left to prove in her career, but she's far from satisfied.
It might take a few more espressos than usual to get her going, but with the competition getting tougher and her body getting older, Serena will still come into the Australian Open as the favorite to win the title. Perhaps more importantly, despite her recent woes in Melbourne, she'll come there expecting herself to win. After all, the Chase for Steffi is officially underway.