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Looking for Sweet 17

Serena Williams Looks to Bolster Stuffed Trophy Case

ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, JUNE 22-23 - FILE - In this July 7, 2012 file photo, Serena Williams celebrates with the trophy after defeating Agnieszka Radwansk to win the women's final match at the All England Lawn Tennis Championships at Wimbledon, England. When Wimbledon starts Monday, June 24, 2013, she will be on a 31-match winning streak and an overwhelming favorite to win her second consecutive title.  (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)

ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, JUNE 22-23 - FILE - In this July 7, 2012 file photo, Serena Williams celebrates with the trophy after defeating Agnieszka Radwansk to win the women's final match at the All England Lawn Tennis Championships at Wimbledon, England. When Wimbledon starts Monday, June 24, 2013, she will be on a 31-match winning streak and an overwhelming favorite to win her second consecutive title. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)

Nothing drives Serena Williams the way disappointment does.

“It’s the biggest factor for me. Like, if I lose, all hell breaks loose, literally. Literally! I go home, I practice harder, I do more,” she said. “I don’t like to lose. … I hate losing more than I love winning. It could be a game of cards — I don’t like it. I really don’t like it.”

Well, the way Williams has been playing tennis lately, there’s been very little not to like. When Wimbledon starts tomorrow, she will be an overwhelming favorite to win her sixth title at the All England Club and second in a row. Williams enters the grass-court Grand Slam tournament 43-2 in 2013 and on a 31-match winning streak, the longest on the women’s tour in a single season in 13 years.

“It happens in sports: You’re going to lose. I learned that you’re not going to win all of them. And there have been a few matches that I wasn’t disappointed in,” said Williams, who at 31 is the oldest player to be ranked No. 1 in WTA history.

“But there were some that I was disappointed in,” she added, “and it’s actually helped me to get better.”

Case in point: A little more than a year ago, Williams arrived at the French Open unbeaten for the season on red clay and anticipating a charge at the title. Instead, she lost in the first round, the only opening-match exit from a major tournament in her career.

“It really was a shock for her. She really worked on rebuilding herself to become perhaps stronger than ever,” said Patrick Mouratoglou, the French coach who began collaborating with Williams shortly after that defeat.

“The more you eat, the hungrier you get,” Mouratoglou said. “When you win, when you achieve the exceptional. You don’t want it to stop.”

Since that dark day at Roland Garros, Williams is 74-3, including trophies at three of the past four Slams and the WTA Championships, plus gold at the London Olympics.

That run of nearly uninterrupted success began 12 months ago at Wimbledon and most recently resulted in her first French Open championship in 11 years. Given the way Williams’ best-in-the-game serve and generally dangerous strokes only get better on the slick grass, it’s difficult to pick against her during the upcoming fortnight.

There are four men, meanwhile, who all have real reason to like their chances, a quartet that’s combined to collect 32 of the past 33 Grand Slam tournaments: defending champion Roger Federer, owner of a record 17 Grand Slam titles, including seven at Wimbledon; No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic, who won Wimbledon in 2011; two-time champion Rafael Nadal, whose record eighth French Open trophy this month raised his career haul to 12 major titles; and Andy Murray, the runner-up last year at the All England Club and reigning U.S. Open champion who wants to give Britain its first male title winner at Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936.

But Williams stands alone atop the women’s game at the moment.

Her serve, which she can consistently hit at more than 120 mph (190 kph), is clearly unrivaled, and she leads the tour this season in aces, service games won, break points saved and first-serve points won. Her return is terrific, too, and Williams leads the way in first-serve return points won, while ranking second in return games won.

“I don’t see a weakness,” three-time Wimbledon champion John McEnroe said. “She’s playing the best tennis of her career. She’s not only in the best place I’ve ever seen, I think she’s the best player that’s ever lived. I said that a while ago, but she’s cementing it in everyone’s mind. She’s just a level above anyone. There’s no doubt about it.”

Chris Evert also knows a thing or two about winning Grand Slam titles. Her total of 18 is tied with Martina Navratilova for the fourth-most in history; it’s also two more than Williams has right now, but even Evert acknowledges that gap probably will not last much longer.

Ask Evert how a player should try to beat Williams on a grass court, and the question is met with a lengthy pause.

Then comes Evert’s scouting report, which begins with the ominous-sounding warning that unless an opponent serves very, very well, Williams is liable to win 6-0, 6-0.

Evert goes on to suggest standing close to the service line for returns and chipping the ball back, perhaps luring Williams forward.

“She beats everybody in the world from the baseline, but nobody’s really tried bringing her in, forcing her to come in. As good a volleyer as she is because of doubles, she’s still not as comfortable at the net as she is on the baseline. I would take off some of the pace,” said Evert, who will join McEnroe as an ESPN analyst during Wimbledon.

“You really can’t hit with her from the baseline,” Evert continued. “You’ve got to either hit short angles, drop shots, chip — do something to throw her timing off. Once she gets in a rhythm, she’s deadly. But you’ve got to have a big serve. You have to be able to hold your serve most of the time. You can’t be just slugging balls with her. That’s been proven a thousand, million times: It doesn’t work.”

Little works these days against Williams, who might be as formidable now as she was at the height of her powers, more than a decade ago, when she won four consecutive major titles for a self-styled “Serena Slam” in 2002-03.

Williams beat her older sister in each of the finals during that stretch; Venus pulled out of this year’s Wimbledon because of a lower back injury Tuesday, a day after her 33rd birthday.

It’s the latest setback for the elder Williams, who has lost in the first round at two of the past four major tournaments. As Serena’s dominance increases, Venus could be nearing the end of her playing days, which have become more complicated because of the energy-sapping autoimmune disease she revealed in 2011.

“What’s happened with her sister, the difficulties she’s had as she’s gotten into the later stages of her career, actually in a way helped Serena, because it made her realize she wanted to enjoy and take advantage of these last couple years,” McEnroe said.

“She realized, and maybe appreciated a little bit more, the talent that she has.”