The top athlete is poised for another big win, but it’s not all roses in Williams’ world

The biggest story of the US Open over the next few weeks will be Serena Williams.

The 34-year-old is on the cusp of a historic achievement as she bids to complete the first calendar-year singles Grand Slam since Steffi Graf in 1988, seeking her fourth trophy in a row on the Flushing Meadows hardcourts and her fourth major title of the year after Wimbledon and the French and Australian Opens.

Victory in New York will confirm Williams' status as one of the greatest athletes - male or female - bringing her 22nd career Grand Slam title, which would match Graf's Open Era (since 1968) record and move her two shy of the all-time record of 24 won by Australia's Margaret Court.

A win would also break the tie for the most US Open titles in the Open era, surpassing the legendary Chris Evert, who herself has described Williams as "a phenomenon that once every hundred years comes around". Another legend, John McEnroe, described Williams as "the greatest player, I think, that ever lived".

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But it is inevitable the narrative over the next few weeks will not be solely focused on her on-court achievements.

Since she exploded on the scene in the late '90s, Williams has been the subject of relentless scrutiny for her powerful physique, contending with often racist critiques of her body as hypermasculine and unattractive.

Even as she was underlining her reputation as a living legend at Wimbledon this year, defeating opponents who were in kindy when she won her first Grand Slam, the New York Times was commenting on the size of her biceps.

"Williams, who will be vying for the Wimbledon title against Garbine Muguruza ... has large biceps and a mould-breaking muscular frame, which packs the power and athleticism that have dominated women's tennis for years," the paper said. "Her rivals could try to emulate her physique, but most of them choose not to."

The piece further noted that "body-image issues among female tennis players persist, compelling many players to avoid bulking up," and quoted Agnieszka Radwanska's coach Tomasz Wiktorowski, who said: "It's our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10. Because, first of all she's a woman, and she wants to be a woman."

The piece was a lot more polite that some of the other commentary Williams has endured. Last year, Russian tennis chief Shamil Tarpischev was fined for his demeaning comments about Williams and sister Venus, calling the pair the "Williams brothers" and saying, "It's frightening when you look at them".

What is more frightening is falling down the rabbit hole of reading social media comments about Williams.

It's not just a matter of mindless quips, as these attitudes seem to affect how she's regarded by sponsors.

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Although the world No 1 has attained a level of success rarely seen in professional sport, she hasn't been tapped for the same sponsorship opportunities as other athletes.

Last month, the London School of Marketing issued its list of the most marketable sports stars, which included only two women in its top 20, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams, ranked 12th and 20th.

Despite decisively trailing Williams on the tennis court (Williams leads in their head-to-head matchups 18-2, and has 21 grand slam titles to Sharapova's five), Sharapova holds the financial clout off the court. According to this year's rankings by Forbes, Sharapova bests Williams by $7.8 million each year, despite the world No 1 making almost $7.6 million more than her in salary and winnings.

The difference lies in endorsement deals, where Williams brings in $15.4 million less than Sharapova.

In an article this month in the New York Times titled "The meaning of Serena Williams", the tennis star brushed off the disparity in earnings.

"If they want to market someone who is white and blonde, that's their choice," she said.

"I have a lot of partners who are very happy to work with me. I can't sit here and say I should be higher on the list because I have won more. I'm happy for her, because she worked hard, too. There is enough at the table for everyone.

"We have to be thankful, and we also have to be positive about it so the next black person can be No 1 on that list."

Williams is comfortable that she is number one where it matters.

World No 1

• Williams has 21 Grand Slam singles titles, with only four losses in 25 appearances in the finals.
• Has completed two "Serena Slams" (four Grand Slam wins in a row).
• A win at this year's US Open would be her fifth and would be her first calendar-year Grand Slam.
• She could equal Steffi Graf's 22 Grand Slams in New York.
• She is two Grand Slam wins off Margaret Court's record of 24.