Beware: Serena Williams better than ever

It wasn't a warning to her fellow players per se, but you don’t need to be Condoleezza Rice to interpret what Serena Williams was saying before the onset of the WTA Championships.

“Every tournament I play, I play to win,” Williams said. “Not that I didn't do that before, but it was just different, just at a different place in my life, and more than anything I enjoy playing tennis. I love being out there.

“Right now, I can't imagine my life without a tennis racket in my hand and playing, you know, the next event. I think maybe that makes a difference.”

Serena, who swiped away Agnieszka Radwanska 6-2, 6-4 to improve to 2-0 in the round-robin stage of the year-enders, is more driven than ever and only wants to further reform her game.

So this is probably a good time to retract the opening line of this story. Yes, it was a warning -- a very stern one, in fact.

Williams, who wasn't as crisp Wednesday as she was in her opener, is nonetheless having a career year at the age of 32, which for most players is a few years past the demarcation line of playing world-class tennis. How many other competitors have begun fazing themselves out of the game, if not completely into retirement, by their mid-20s?

Granted, the game has become more physical in recent years. Bigger, harder hitters have thrived on all surfaces. Clay specialists and players with only sneaky, deft games aren't thriving anymore. The day of teenage Slam winners is long gone. The last one: Maria Sharapova, who was 17 when she won Wimbledon in 2004.

And when you think about it, how many truly great, young players are there on tour right now? Sloane Stephens comes to mind; she’s strung together some nice runs in the majors the past couple of years, and she’s the youngest player in the top 20. But is she a top-five player, someone who’s going to be a stable face on the final weekend of Slams?

There’s Laura Robson, who is rife with talent and capable of pulling off upsets, which she showed last year at the US Open with wins over Kim Clijsters and Li Na. But like so many other fledgling stars, Robson hasn't strung together consistent results. And quite frankly, it’s too early to figure out whether the likes of Madison Keys, Eugenie Bouchard and Monica Puig, among a few others, will have robust futures.

But all that said, it seems to defy some kind of logic that Williams, who is 17 years into her vocation, will end 2013 with a career-best 11 titles if she wins in Istanbul. Not only is she playing the best tennis of her life, but she has the clarity of mind to keep this stunning run going.

Since losing to Sabine Lisicki in the fourth round of Wimbledon, Williams has played five tournaments (excluding the year-enders), and has won four. Her only loss came against Victoria Azarenka in a third-set tiebreaker of the Western & Southern Open final, a tournament right before the US Open, which, yes, Williams won.

After she defended her New York crown, wouldn't you figure she would lose some sort of motivation? Not according to Williams. She was reflective and honest when asked to assess her success this year.

“When I was 20 or 18, I never thought I'd be playing at this stage, and I have had a lot of time to think about it,” Williams said right before the WTA Championships began. “The sport has just been growing so great. It's just been a great opportunity for me to continue to play, so I never thought I would have one of my best years this year, but I always just try to keep doing better.”

Jelena Jankovic recently said that what Williams is doing right now is “inspiring.” Angelique Kerber admitted she had “no chance” against Serena in the opening match in Istanbul.

Look, we’re not breaking any new ground by declaring Serena the empress of today's game. Her collective package -- athleticism, strength and mind -- separates her by a wide margin, as the rankings suggest. (Williams has nearly 5,000 points more than the second-ranked Azarenka.) We’re merely pointing out how easily we can forget that Williams shouldn't be doing what she is.

Except that she is.