Monica Seles believes Serena Williams can become the greatest women’s tennis player of all time by beating Margaret Court’s incredible record of 24 Grand Slam titles.
While Williams, at 28, is only halfway to that total, Seles, the former world No 1 and winner of nine Grand Slam titles herself, insists that the achievement is still not beyond her.
‘If Serena can stay fit she’ll beat all the records,’ said Seles after Williams became Sportswoman of the Year at the Laureus World Sports Awards.
‘I appreciate she’s got a bit to go yet, but really think she’ll do it because she has the potential to be the greatest player of all time. Serena now possesses every attribute required to be the best, and to stay the best.
‘She has a great serve, a sweet return, fantastic movement and all this is combined with awesome power. As if this is not enough, no player comes close to being as mentally strong as her.’
To beat the Grand Slam record of Australian legend Court, Williams would have to increase her annual tally of titles considerably.
Since the ‘Serena Slam’ of 2002-2003, during which she won an incredible five titles, injuries and erratic form have restricted her Grand Slam wins to six in seven years
But Seles is adamant that -despite the evidence of her abusive outburst against a line judge at last year’s US Open, for which she received a suspended three-year ban from the tournament – Williams has matured professionally and personally.
‘We all know that Serena has had some difficult moments, especially the passing of her older sister, as well as some injury and motivational problems,’ said Seles.
‘But she has proved how tough she is to bounce back in such style when everyone seemed to have written her off.
‘Now I believe she’s matured as a woman and has a balanced life.
‘She used to be criticised before for not committing every single minute of the day to tennis, but believe her other interests have kept her mentally fresh and her love for the game intact.’
Williams won two Slams last year, including her third Wimbledon title, and started 2010 by winning the Australian Open in emphatic style.
Seles believes that not even the return from retirement of the two Belgians, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, will stop the American from dominating the women’s game.
‘I reckon Serena’s playing her best tennis ever right now,’ said Seles. ‘She seems to have moved up a gear. She’s moved on.
‘You can’t really make comparisons with previous eras, but it’s hard to see any of the greats living with Serena when she’s playing as well as she did in the Australian Open.’
Seles could well have doubled her own tally of major titles, such was her dominance of the women’s game in the early Nineties. But her career was derailed by the knife attack on her by an obsessive fan, and her subsequent depression saw her become addicted to food and her weight balloon.
‘I was No1 in the world, then a terrible thing happened to me and the stabbing, together with my father battling with cancer, made me very depressed,’ she said.
‘That was when I turned to food and suddenly was carrying an extra 40lb of weight.
‘It was only when stopped playing tennis that was able to deal with my addiction.
‘I’m not one to ask “what if?” The truth is I’ll never know what might have happened. What I do know is that I’d won eight Grand Slams before was even 20 years old, so it’s reasonable to assume might have won a good many more if it hadn’t been for the stabbing.
‘To think about that, however, would be dangerous, depressing and not achieving anything.
‘I prefer to go around schools in America and address the rising obesity problem. As I suffered from it myself, know what I’m talking about.
‘I bring a 10lb weight vest with me and ask kids to run around wearing it, pointing out that this, and much more, was the extra weight carried while playing tennis.
‘With the President’s Council in America they’re really looking to combat childhood and female obesity and I’m very committed to helping the cause because I know how much misery it causes.’
Seles is also keen to promote skill over looks in tennis.
‘I was bombarded with a certain image of a glamorous tennis player when I started out,’ she explained.
‘I went the other way, always wearing a hat because all I was interested in was winning, not looking pretty. It’s important for girls to know this.
‘Sport is about winning, not how you look, and girls need to understand this for their own self-esteem.’