Final word: Our take on Serena Williams' 2018 season

Even though she failed to win a a major title in 2018, Serena Williams made significant improvements. Elsa/Getty Images

Three major appearances, two Grand Slam finals and one memorable controversy.

That was Serena Williams' return to tennis in a nutshell, but her 2018 season was far more than that. The 23-time Grand Slam winner came back after a 14-month maternity leave and at times appeared like she'd never missed a day.

Still there were ups and downs. So what do we make of all this? Our writers share their thoughts:

What should we take from Serena's two Grand Slam final appearances in 2018?

D'Arcy Maine: For virtually any other player, two back-to-back Grand Slam finals would be an incredible feat, but for Serena it still feels somewhat like a letdown -- despite just coming back from childbirth. She all but steamrolled the competition at both Wimbledon and the US Open (needing three sets in just one match in each tournament) leading into the championship match and created high expectations but simply couldn't complete the job. For a player we've come to know as tenacious and dominant, it was a surprising sight and certainly one for some amount of concern. However, as evidenced throughout her career, Serena hates to lose and we have to think both of her runner-up trophies will be added fuel for her entering the 2019 season. And whether it was nerves, or simply not quite being 100 percent yet, it's safe to say Serena will be in better shape, physically and mentally, once January comes around.

Alyssa Roenigk: Despite playing in only seven tournaments this season, Williams was two matches from winning two Grand Slam titles. It's hard to see that record as anything but positive, especially considering the physical hurdles she had to overcome just to return to the game in March. In the Wimbledon final against Angelique Kerber, Williams looked like she ran out of steam, both mentally and physically. She wasn't yet prepared to contest seven matches over two weeks and sustain a level of play on par with the best players in the world. But in the first six matches in New York, she looked fit, focused and confident. She looked like the "old Serena," and that's promising. In the final, however, she was simply outplayed. Figuring out how to beat young, surging players like Naomi Osaka will be her biggest challenge in the future, but there is little doubt Williams is still up for the fight.

Peter Bodo: Serena is as dangerous as ever and as capable of navigating the unforeseen aspects of a major draw as she has been in the past. The big thing is that other players are more likely to feel they can challenge and stay with her now. Her aura is still intact, but she's no longer seen as invincible. Did anyone really think Kerber was going to beat Serena so convincingly at Wimbledon? Not really. That Kerber did it certainly made it easier for Osaka to imagine beating Serena at the US Open. Each time Serena lost, the sense that she is vulnerable increased. Most importantly, it probably increased in her own mind as well.

Aishwarya Kumar: That Williams is only going to get better from here on out. Her growth between Wimbledon and the US Open this year is particularly awe-inspiring. She wasn't moving as fluidly at Wimbledon, looking out of sorts especially during the quarters and semis, and I thought she made it to the final because she had a relatively easy draw. Serena didn't meet a seeded player until the semifinals. When she went up against Kerber, she was overmatched. But just seven weeks later, you truly couldn't tell who was going to win the Serena-Osaka US Open final. She'd not only beaten seeded players en route to the final (Venus Williams, Karolina Pliskova and Anastasija Sevastova), but Serena did so with a familiar command. If her growth since her comeback is any indication, she's going to have a great 2019.

Jerry Bembry: Serena, while staging an amazing comeback in 2018, was fortunate in reaching two Grand Slam finals. In the US Open, she faced just one top-10 opponent (Pliskova in the quarters), and her path to the finals became wide open when Simona Halep (a potential fourth-round opponent) lost in the first round and Sloane Stephens (a potential semifinal opponent) lost in the quarters. At Wimbledon, Serena's only top-10 opponent was her final match against Kerber. A potentially challenging fourth-round match against Madison Keys never happened as last year's US Open runner-up was upset in the third round by Evgeniya Rodina.

What was Serena's most memorable moment from 2018?

Maine: This is hard. Obviously the scene from the US Open final won't be forgotten for a long, long time, but that frankly seems unfair considering all of her amazing moments this year that should be remembered. So, that said, simply watching her take the court at Indian Wells in March for the first time since her complicated childbirth just six months before was incredible and almost felt like an accomplishment in itself. There was an unmatched energy in the crowd, starting before the match even began. She was greeted with so much warmth and gratitude. It felt like she was playing for so much more than herself. It was unlike anything I've ever witnessed in sports, and it's how I'll remember her year, despite its unfortunate ending.

Roenigk: Without question, this has been a memorable season for Serena with two matches against big sister, Venus, a tearful shout-out to moms after the Wimbledon final, the catsuit in Paris and "the match" in New York. But from a tennis perspective, Williams' semifinal win against Sevastova at Flushing Meadows was the performance that made everyone believe she could win her first Grand Slam since becoming a mom. In preparation to play the tricky Sevastova, Williams all but overhauled the game plan that got her there. She came to the net 28 times in that match -- and won 24 of those points -- and played the most complete, dominant, energetic match of her return.

Bodo: Unfortunately, it has to be the ending of the US Open. A difficult set of circumstances became even more controversial when Williams accused chair umpire Carlos Ramos of sexism. Williams seemed less angry than anguished, less defiant than helpless. And how often have we seen Serena anguished and helpless? It was the moment when she seemed to realize that no matter how famous, how accomplished, how great, she could not impose her will and bend events to her satisfaction.

Kumar: This might not be a popular opinion, but when I watched Williams bagel Sevastova in the second set of the US Open semifinals, I thought her comeback was complete. The Serena Williams that day was no different than the Serena Williams 15 years ago. That day, for me, cemented her return to the top of women's tennis.

Bembry: It would have to be where Serena was in February, playing a Fed Cup doubles match with her sister, Venus, in Asheville, North Carolina, and where she was five months later, the Wimbledon final. I was at the match in Asheville, and Serena did not look ready for competitive tennis. But her form quickly came together as the season progressed. But it was the drama during the US Open final that stands out even more. Even with the excellent points she conveyed after the match about how men and women in the sport have historically been treated differently, seeing Serena lose her cool to that extent on such a big stage was difficult to watch.

How motivated do you believe Serena is to improve at this stage of her career?

Maine: Serena has made it clear she wants to win two more Grand Slam trophies and surpass Margaret Court with a record 25 major singles titles. And if there's one thing we all should have learned by now: Never count out Serena when she sets her mind to something. We have to think she's doing everything she can to reach her goal. Her losses to Kerber and Osaka exposed flaws in Williams' game, and she's likely dedicating much of her offseason to improving in those areas and regaining the mental edge she had all but perfected before her pregnancy.

Roenigk: What has kept Williams in the game and on top for more than two decades is her constant desire to improve at everything she does, on and off the court, and her willingness to admit when something is not working and make a change. Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, says that after every tournament, after every season, he and Williams break apart her game to look for areas in which she can make even the tiniest of improvements. He calls her a consummate learner, someone who is never satisfied. Two days before the US Open final, Mouratoglou told me Serena is as motivated as ever to improve. I can't imagine that changed after the final.

Bodo: Call me a cynic, but I don't think players at her stage of career/life are thinking of improving. They are thinking about ways to rekindle the flames that once fired them, tap into the motivations and talents that carried them to the peak of the game. More than early in their careers, older players have to draw on wisdom and experience rather than aggression, determination or any new tactics or strategies. At this stage, "improvement" for Serena means finding a way to be as alert, energetic, strong, focused and motivated as she once was. It's about the right mental and emotional approach.

Kumar: Williams will be motivated to improve until the day she decides to walk away from tennis. Because she doesn't know any other way, she made sure we saw that this year. The motivation to win, to be the best in the world is so ingrained in her, it doesn't matter how far down the rung life pushes her, she will make her way back up -- and quickly at that -- to reclaim her spot at the top of the ladder.

Bembry: It's going to be challenging. Before, it was just tennis. Now, Serena has a beautiful daughter and a husband. Tennis is probably a third priority. It has to be difficult -- at this stage of her career and this moment of her life -- to juggle all of her responsibilities. And still, she was able to reach two Grand Slam finals.

Give us your Serena 2019 Grand Slam forecast

Maine: Sure, she didn't win a title in 2018, but we're still talking about Serena Jameka Williams here. Having likely improved her fitness, worked out some of the trouble spots and nerves, coupled with some downtime to rest and recuperate, expect her to be back -- and with something to prove in Australia. So much so, you can mark me down now as predicting Serena to win Grand Slam title No. 24 in Melbourne. From there, it's anyone's guess, but between the French Open catsuit ban and her disappointing finishes at Wimbledon and the US Open, she'll be playing with some extra fire, so it's certainly possible she could rack up another trophy or two. Plus, how adorable would those championship pictures with Baby Olympia look? Just saying.

Roenigk: Since winning her first Grand Slam title in 1999, Williams has contested only six seasons without winning at least one major title, and 2018 was only the second in which she lost in the final at back-to-back Slams (2016 was the other). So while time might not be on her side, history certainly is. In 2016, Williams, 37, lost in the final at the Australian and French Opens and rebounded to win two of the next three Slams before announcing she was pregnant. More than she is filled by wins, Williams is fueled by losses. It is no secret that she returned with the goal of winning at least two more Slams and owning Margaret Court's all-time record outright. Those two finals losses provided a lot of fuel for the future.

Bodo: I have to think that the upcoming year will be one of reckoning for Serena, following this comeback year of experimentation and probing. I'm not sure she was really all-in during 2018 or created the ideal conditions to flourish. Now the testing is over. The working-mom theme will still be there next year, but there will be more focus on the working and less on the mom. She can triumph at the Australian Open if her fitness is good, but forget the red clay of Roland Garros. But after that, Serena should have an excellent shot at Wimbledon.

Kumar: She is likely to equal Margaret Court's record 24 Grand Slams in 2019. There is no way Serena is going to walk away from the sport -- especially after coming back from a life-threatening surgery and making it to two major finals -- without holding a major trophy in her hand again. That being said, I also don't picture her breaking Court's record. Winning two majors requires dominance over the game for a long period of time -- and I just don't think Williams has that kind of time anymore, especially with younger players such as Osaka and Aryna Sabalenka in tow. My prediction: two finals, one major win.

Bembry: I see her winning one Grand Slam title. Her improvements over the course of 2018 were incredible. And she reached two major finals with room to improve physically. She'll likely be more fit in 2019. It helps there is no one dominant player in women's tennis. Since Serena's last major win at the 2017 Australian Open, seven different women have won the seven Grand Slam titles. A more focused, better conditioned Serena could possibly go on to win two titles and surpass Margaret Court for the all-time record. But at 37, this will be a crucial year in Serena's pursuit of the record. If she's presented with opportunities like the two finals appearances she had in 2018, Serena has to seize the moments, which she'll find to be more fleeting.