Serena Williams has held the WTA world number one ranking for 173 weeks since returning to the top spot on February 13, 2013. When she did so, she simultaneously became the oldest female player to hold the number one ranking. As of June 6, when the latest ranking was released, Williams was just 13 weeks shy of matching Steffi Graf’s record of 186 consecutive weeks as the world’s best player.
At Roland Garros, Williams was also chasing down another Graf record; 22 Grand Slam titles. The American great had already overtaken Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert and it seemed after her triumphs at the Australian Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon last season that Graf’s pre-eminence was firmly in Williams’ sights. She had won the previous season’s US Open as well and held all four majors going into Flushing Meadows 2015. Then Roberta Vinci scored the win of her career in the semi-finals to put Williams’ record bid on hold, where it remains going into Wimbledon in two weeks’ time.
For much of the latter part of Williams’ career she has had no peer on the court; no Martina Hingis, Jennifer Capriati, the Belgian duo of Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, or her sister Venus. Williams’ inexorable march to the eternal title of best player of all time has been largely unopposed since 2012. She has won eight of her Grand Slam titles since in the past five years. Her other 13 majors were achieved over the course of the previous 13 years, her inaugural victory coming at the 1999 US Open.
When Williams lifted the trophy in Flushing Meadows at the tail end of the 20th century, Garbiñe Muguruza was five years old. 17 years later, with all her historic rivals save Venus retired or on the doubles circuit, Williams has a new challenger.
Muguruza and Williams met in the final at Wimbledon last year, a bright and attacking start by the Spaniard eventually worn into the floor of Centre Court by the American’s big game experience. At Roland Garros last weekend, that was not enough to deny Muguruza, who has learned to channel her emotions into the punishing ground strokes that had Williams swiping at dust at times in Paris.
If Muguruza wins the title in SW19 and Williams fails to make the final, the Spaniard will assume the number one ranking. "Everybody's dreaming about being number one," Muguruza said after her Roland Garros victory. "My focus is just on winning matches and tournaments. But of course I would be very happy to be number one."
Spain has not had a WTA world number one since Arantxa Sánchez Vicario held the position in 1995 – the same year Williams turned professional.
At just 22, Muguruza’s rise up the rankings has been steady rather than spectacular, from 104 at the end of 2012 to 64 the following year, and 21 at the end of 2014, a season when she scored her first win over Williams, a straight sets victory at the French Open.
Two years later, Muguruza is gunning for the American’s hegemony of the WTA ranking, and posing the most serious threat in years to Williams’ goal of going down in history as the best player of all time by overhauling Graf’s 22 majors.