By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - Serena Williams has had plenty of time to reflect on her quest for a record equalling 24th Grand Slam title while being quarantined in five-star comfort for two weeks ahead of the Australian Open.
Stuck on number 23 for four years, Williams has brushed off failures and near misses at matching Margaret Court's mark with the self-assurance of someone convinced her time will come.
But time is running out for the 39-year-old American to reach the career milestone that has become one of the sport's longest running storylines.
So it will be again when play begins on Monday at Melbourne Park.
"It's good to always have goals that you try to reach and kind of see what happens," said Williams, who ended her 14-day COVID-19 quarantine with an exhibition match against Naomi Osaka followed by a visit to the zoo with three-year-old daughter Olympia.
Australia has long been a happy place for Williams with seven of her 23 major titles coming at Melbourne Park, including her last in 2017 when she beat sister Venus in the final and later announced she was pregnant.
The ensuing years on court, however, have been barren and turbulent.
The winner of 73 career titles, only once in the last four years -- a lower level Australian Open tuneup event in 2020 -- has Williams celebrated a win.
Four times -- twice at both Wimbledon and U.S. Open -- Williams has come agonizingly close to that 24th Slam, only to be denied at the final hurdle.
At the All-England Club in 2018 she was dismissed 6-3 6-3 by Angelique Kerber and a year later humbled 6-2 6-2 by Simona Halep.
There were very similar unhappy endings at Flushing Meadows where the woman many consider the greatest of all-time was unceremoniously dispatched by two up-and-comers; Japan's Osaka and Canada's Bianca Andreescu, who celebrated their first Grand Slam at Williams's expense.
Williams was left in rage and tears at the 2018 U.S. Open during an ill-tempered final won by Osaka 6-2 6-4.
The following year it was Andreescu, playing in the U.S. Open main draw for the first time, delivering the disappointment with a 6-3 7-5 victory.
Williams's downward spiral accelerated last season.
Her best result was a semi-final appearance at the U.S. Open with a third round exit in Australia and a second round loss at the French Open.
After each failure there was dejection but seldom any mention of defeat.
"It's really not about 24 or 23 or 25 it's really just about going out there and giving my best effort no matter what," said Williams ahead of the 2019 Wimbledon final. "I feel like I have things to lose but I also have nothing to lose, it's like I am in the middle."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Christian Radnedge)