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Beware, Serena: Decision to withdraw could backfire

Serena Williams' decision to pull the plug on 2015 is a terrible blow to the WTA, but if she isn't careful, or if she's just plain unlucky, it may prove to be an even larger strike against her legacy.

Throughout this year, as Williams inexorably slashed and pounded her way toward a calendar-year Grand Slam, critics and pundits lined up one after another to cast their early ballots to name her the Greatest Player of All Time.

That, in spite of the fact that she had yet to complete that Grand Slam (thereby joining the most elite club of all, consisting of just five members, including three females: Maureen Connolly Brinker, Margaret Court and Steffi Graf). Williams was also striving to match Graf's Open era record of 22 Grand Slam titles. By failing to lock down the US Open title, Williams also remains one title short of Graf.

So what if Williams, who is now unlikely to join Graf and Court as a Grand Slammer, doesn't get that 22nd major (never mind matching or equaling Court's all-time record of 24 major titles)? There surely will be rethinking of the pecking order on tennis Olympus. Our eyes may tell us Williams is the greatest player ever, but every generation has different eyes and the next one will see this one mostly through statistics.

Nothing suggests Williams can't get that title. As Patrick Mouratoglou, her coach and confidant, told espnW's Melissa Isaacson a few days ago: "I have no doubt the motivation will be there [going forward] and no doubt she'll be the same Serena. ... She just won four Grand Slams in a row and got to the semifinals of a fifth. It's [also] not time to doubt whether age will affect her. She has a lot of time left."

Those are upbeat words, but what's her coach supposed to say?

Realistically, it's also true that as much as we celebrate older players and like to discount age as a factor in performance, it counts. In Williams' case, it may now be the dominant factor. The fall-off at the back end of a player's career tends to be swift. You're a Grand Slam winner until suddenly you're not, even though you usually remain an impact player until you retire gracefully.

Look at that other Grand Slam icon, Roger Federer. He's 34, just as Serena is, and not winning majors.

It's tougher for an older player to get fit, and no amount of practice or exhibition play is a substitute for actual match play. Incidentally, Federer is acutely aware of that, which is why he plays such a balanced schedule. He takes long periods off, but he plays right into the late fall.

A significant break could certainly help Williams recover and recharge. On the other hand, it's also a serious break of continuity -- roughly four months between the last ball she hit at the US Open and the next one she hits at a major.

Given that Williams is presently the runaway No. 1, she might have been much better served by taking these rest weeks and then swinging by Singapore to show the rest of the WTA ladies how it's done.

There's something else worth thinking about. As inspirational as many of her matches in 2015 were, the dark side of those remarkable comebacks is that they were recoveries from desperate situations.

The trouble Williams got into so consistently on every surface, and against every kind of opponent last year -- she played 18 three-setters and lost the first set 13 times -- not only confirmed that she's got the heart of a lioness, it also suggested that the hardware is showing signs of wear and tear and there are even glitches in her software.

In the statement announcing her withdrawal from the China Open and the WTA finals, Williams wrote that she was "taking a proactive step and withdrawing from tournaments in Beijing and Singapore to properly address my health and take the time to heal."

But those problems, whether physical injuries or mental struggles, didn't develop over time; they weren't due to fatigue. They were present almost from the start, certainly by the time Roland Garros started. Players who have returned from lengthy layoffs can attest that the older you are, the more difficult it is to get your groove back.

Williams has a lot of groove to get back. On the other hand, she's had plenty of practice, having made spectacular comebacks before: 2005, 2007 and 2011 all come to mind. She's no ordinary player, and that's the best thing she has going besides that serve.

"This is a very difficult decision," Williams wrote in her withdrawal statement, "but one ultimately made because of the love of the game."

It would be a pity if that love backfired on her.