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Age, injuries could halt Serena Williams' dominance in 2016

In terms of setting the stage for another year of extraordinary exploits, Serena Williams' jump on 2016 was an ominous one.

Williams was trailing No. 105 Jarmila Wolfe 7-5, 2-1 in a Hopman Cup exhibition match in Perth, Australia, earlier this week when she had to withdraw because of pain and inflammation in her left knee.

But being Williams, this may mean absolutely nothing as far as the upcoming Australian Open -- or the rest of 2016 -- goes.

"It's not even a bump, just a really minor thing in the road, and I'll fly over it," Williams said in her news conference, trying to reassure reporters and fans she will be OK after she retired in Perth. "I just have some inflammation that's been going away very slowly. It's going away, but it needs a little more time. Maybe a day off or two will really make the world of difference."

Williams has just more than a week before the start of the Australian Open, which is the good news as far as her knee goes. The bad news is that she'll also be 11 days older at a time when every day counts. She's 34 now and, as strong and fit as she is, that isn't the best number for an athlete. In her case -- the case of a woman who has utterly dominated her peers for years -- Williams' age is the elephant in the room in 2016.

As we learned in Perth, Williams is still banged up despite having called it quits on competitive tennis last September. That's the legacy of that glorious, if not doomed, enterprise of 2015, her hunt for the calendar-year Grand Slam. It's the price she's paying for having put herself through the physical wringer at her age.

Of course, Williams could cyclone through another Aussie Open. She's proved time and again that only a fool would count her out as long as she draws breath and qualifies for a place in the draw. Alternatively, she might hobble out of it long before the trophy round. She might find herself mired on a stop-and-start, injury-plagued year. That's one area Williams' case is different from that of another 34-year-old icon, Roger Federer. But there are others.

While Williams made a great run at the season Grand Slam last year, we also saw fissures in her previously unassailable confidence. It was no accident that they opened up at times when her body also was breaking down. At the same time, she appeared to wrestle with great emotional stress long before she won Wimbledon and Grand Slam fever kicked in. That was something new.

These are the new realities of Williams' career, and that makes you wonder what she ought to expect of herself coming out of one of the best years in the history of women's tennis.

Williams is not a woman accustomed to looking through the wrong end of the telescope, where the focus is narrowed, but now might be a good time to try. Right now, she has 21 Grand Slam singles titles -- one short of Steffi Graf's Open era record. Equaling and/or surpassing Graf's record may be the best of all potential goals.

Knee aside, Williams ought to be well-rested and fit after playing only hit-and-giggle tennis since the US Open. The court surface Down Under suits her game, and she's traditionally produced some of her most mind-boggling results in Melbourne, Australia.

Williams has won six Australian Open titles, including an amazing performance in 2007. Recovering from depression, her game in utter disarray, Williams was unseeded that year. Many had written her off as burned out. Yet she slashed her way to the final before obliterating top-seeded Maria Sharapova for the title, 6-1, 6-2.

If Williams wins in Melbourne this season, it takes off a lot of pressure for the rest of the year. Sure there's a potential Grand Slam run, but it would still be too early to think about that. Instead, she would be looking at becoming the Open era's all-time Grand Slam singles champ at Roland Garros. If not there, then she'd have a shot just a few weeks later at Wimbledon, where the points are shorter and her serve is most waspish.

There are other worthy goals in play. Notably she will go for a gold medal in singles (it would be just her second) and doubles (her fourth) at the Rio Olympic Games.

How about surpassing Martina Navratilova to take over the No. 2 spot on the "most weeks at No. 1" list? At the end of last year, Williams moved into third ahead of Chris Evert. On Jan. 1, Williams logged her 261st week on top. Navratilova held the spot for 72 more weeks (332). Given how few of her rivals win big events with any consistency, Williams could surpass Navratilova early in 2017. Graf is the all-time leader at 377 weeks.

Then, invariably, there is the Grand Slam issue. Can Williams make another run at it? We'll know soon enough. I wouldn't count her out.