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What does Wimbledon’s cancellation mean for Serena’s Grand Slam record chase?

With much of the 2020 season likely lost, Williams has fewer chances to catch and pass Margaret Court

One may well be the loneliest number, but for Serena Williams, 23 has got to be the most frustrating.

On April 1, the All England Club announced that Wimbledon would be canceled because of the global coronavirus pandemic. It’s the first time Wimbledon has been canceled since 1945, when the tournament was shuttered because of World War II. The Grand Slam tournament is scheduled to come back June 28, 2021. It’s the first time Wimbledon has been canceled in peacetime.

In an Instagram post from March 13, Williams had already announced that she was spending the next six weeks “in solitude.”

The US Open is still scheduled to start on Aug. 24 and the French Open is slated to begin Sept. 20. But the Wimbledon news invites questions about how long the window will be open for Williams to notch her 24th Grand Slam title, the one that would allow her to tie Margaret Court’s record for singles titles.

The road back to the top has not been easy for Williams since she gave birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., in 2017. As Williams pursued her goal of winning more Grand Slams since her return from maternity leave, she’s faced a new generation of athletes who are younger than she is — often by 10 years or more — and who play tennis with the same level of power and athleticism that have become her trademark. The kids are getting more difficult to topple. Since winning the Australian Open in 2017, Williams has reached four Grand Slam finals but lost them all. Last year, she lost convincingly in the Wimbledon final to Simona Halep, 6-2, 6-2.

Williams is still a world-class athlete, as evidenced by her performance at the 2019 US Open, where she marched through opponent after opponent. It should have been a golden opportunity for her, but in the finals, Williams lost her serve, her game fell apart and she fell to 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu in straight sets, 6-3, 7-5.

So what now? The tennis world will lie fallow, at least temporarily. It’s especially confounding to think about, given that Williams generally plays her best when she’s got more matches under her belt. If Williams plays Wimbledon next year, she will be 39. When the All England Club announced the news of the cancellation, Williams tweeted simply, “I’m Shooked.”

Perhaps the time off will give Williams a chance to address what seems to be her biggest demon when it’s come to Grand Slams lately: her own brain. When not beset by injury, Williams’ conditioning and fitness have been top-notch. That’s what made her loss to Andreescu difficult to watch — she just didn’t look like herself. She wasn’t playing “catsuit tennis.” Admittedly, when Halep defeated Williams in the Wimbledon final, she did so by playing near-perfect tennis. But Williams hasn’t quite been the same since she lost to Naomi Osaka in the now-notorious final of the 2018 US Open. It’s not just that she’s chasing Court’s record. A Grand Slam win, post-2018, would also serve as a definitive marker that she’s fully recovered from one of the — if not the — most painful losses of her career.

After a surprise third-round exit in the Australian Open earlier this year — Williams lost to Wang Qiang in three sets — her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, acknowledged that a shift in strategy was needed. “We have to accept the fact that it is not working,” he said. It was even weirder because Williams entered the tournament with momentum, having just won the ASB Classic. It was her first title since winning the 2017 Australian Open.

“Her level is good enough, but we have to understand what is going on and why she is not able to win one. There is a big difference between reaching a final and winning one,” Mouratoglou told BBC Sport after Williams’ third-round defeat in Melbourne, Australia. “She believes she can make it and I believe it too. She’s not that far, but we have to change a few things.”

Now a deadly virus has rocked the entire world and tennis, too. Is a change still gon’ come, as Sam Cooke would say? And if so, what will it be?

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.