WTA world #1 Serena Williams has started the year fairly unexpectedly, with two Grand Slam Final losses.
That marks her first loss in the Final of a Slam since the 2011 US Open, which meant she was 8-0 in GSF since then, until this Australian Open. Not bad, right?
But what exactly does this say about Williams? She is not shy to these kinds of “slumps” in her career. In fact, her two longest “Slam slumps” (only counting those she has participated in) are seven and six, and after them, it's significantly less.
That’s right; Serena has never gone the equivalent of two full years without a Grand Slam win. Incredible stuff.
2016 also marks the first time since 2004 that she has lost two straight tournament finals, losing in the Australian Open Final and Indian Wells.
But does this mean that arguably the greatest female tennis player of all-time is slowing down, or that she may only be the best woman in the world by ranking only?
Let’s take a look at how Williams plays her game, what she does best and how she has been beaten this year, so far by Angelique Kerber, Victoria Azarenka, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Garbine Muguruza.
You don’t win as many Slams as Serena has without perfecting each shot of your game, which is something she clearly has.
Her success in both singles and doubles shows that she is equally as potent rallying from the baseline, as she is serving and volleying in the doubles game, often with her sister Venus.
However, Williams has reached a level almost unattained by any other women’s player not just because of her perfectly crafted skills.
She is so physically imposing and powerful that it’s hard to ignore the fact that she has an immediate advantage over any other player that steps onto the court with her, on any surface, in any tournament.
It is this unprecedented power that she has built her game around. Her beastly forehand, often called the best ever in the womens’ game, is so powerful that it pulls opponents off the court.
The shot is so heavy and deep that it doesn’t bother her that it opens up her backhand, like it would with most others on tour, because to those lucky enough to get it back, they’re most certainly on the back foot.
Her rocket of a forehand is perfectly complemented by her new age, open stance backhand, which can be perfectly disguised and is hence equally as hard to return.
Again, because of her sheer power, the unorthodox stance she hits the shot with does not matter. This is a shot that was once exclusively seen in the men’s tour, until Serena brought it over to the women’s.
Her serve is also known as one of the best the womens’ game has seen, also due to its’ power, and the attitude Williams hits it with.
Where most women on tour hit their serve not to double fault, or not to have a return drilled by them, Serena hits it with the intent to win a point, or set one up thereafter. Another feature once only seen in the men's game.
With such unique talent and physical gifts, it’s easy to see why it seems that winning comes easy to Williams. She’s a different kind of tennis player and woman to most others on tour.
It will be these skills that assure her place as a fixture in the top 10 in the world, probably for a few years to come, but it may very well be her reliance on power that sees her slip down the tree over those next few years.
This began to shine through right form the first Grand Slam of the year. Whilst she cruised through the vast majority of challengers, as expected, her encounter in the Final with young German Angelique Kerber tested her more than she could withstand.
Looking at the stats, it was evident Serena had an off night. 46 unforced errors, including the one that handed Kerber the Open, was scarily uncharacteristic for her.
However, it was the younger woman’s ability to run Williams around the court, force her to hit on the run to negate her power and her superior recovery and footwork skills that had Serena hitting many more forced errors than were recorded.
A fairly similar script also played out at the French Open. After steamrolling the cannon fodder that is the lower echelons of the WTA Tour, Williams faced her first real test in the Final against future world #1 Garbine Muguruza.
As seen in the Aussie Open, a well thought out game plan came up winner on the day.
Muguruza, who is 12 years Serena’s junior, matched her in power, and her hard and heavy hitting to the wings was the first time in a long time where Williams had literally no answer, losing 7-5, 6-4.
34 is quite an age to still be winning the biggest tournaments of the year. The great Roger Federer himself found out a few years ago that even he would have to adapt his game or risk extinction.
He steadily moved from a fast paced, high-energy defensive game that required fitness only found in the younger members of the tour, to a more measured counter attacking game, heavily present with volleying, under the tutelage of Stefan Edberg.
Serena would be wise to take a leaf out of Federer’s book, and focus on starting to transition her game around her soft hands and brilliant drop shots and volleys, as her natural athletic gifts depart her.
I’m not a betting man, and I’m certainly not one to make a fool of myself with outlandish crystal ball predictions.
However, from the 2016 WTA season so far, I would not be shocked to see Serena held "Slamless" for the first time since 2011 (where she did not appear in the first two of the year).
Only twice before has she gone 0/4 in majors in a year – 2001, and 1998, her rookie year.
It’s fairly clear a steady decline has begun for the 21-time Grand Slam champion. How rapid that decline is remains to be seen.
It will certainly make for enthralling viewing for the rest of the year and beyond.