Serena Williams confident she will have the season's first last laugh

— -- MELBOURNE, Australia -- Beyond all those Instagram and Twitter posts, Serena Williams has been busy since her season ended last September at the US Open.

She's been studying tennis -- men's tennis.

Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, speaking recently to espnW, reported they've been adding a few wrinkles to Williams' already nuanced game.

"And she's also learning by herself, watching lots of men's tennis, which is obviously different than the women's game," Mouratoglou said. "She sees things and we're sharing. She'll ask, 'Can I do that? What do you think?'"

We think it promises to be an intriguing season for the 35-year-old, who steps into her first Grand Slam of 2017, the Australian Open, which opens Sunday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2 & WatchESPN.

On a blustery Saturday at Melbourne Park, Serena met the press for her pre-tournament news conference. She's been on site a bit longer than usual, hitting on the big courts, after losing her second match in nearby Auckland, New Zealand.

She was asked to assess her 2016 season, since it ended so abruptly.

"For me, it wasn't a great season," she said in her flat interview voice. "I think for other people it would have been wonderful. For me, it wasn't. It was what it was.

"I'm still hitting."

Williams, dogged by lingering shoulder and knee injuries, lost her No. 1 ranking to Angelique Kerber and, for the second straight season, shut it down in early September. Like fellow 30-somethings Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, she faces the usual pressing questions about her ability to compete consistently at the highest level. Will she rally to break her tie with Steffi Graf (22 Grand Slam singles titles) and catch Margaret Court's hallowed mark of 24?

The early returns, last week in New Zealand, were not encouraging.

Serena lost at the ASB Classic to Madison Brengle, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-4. In extremely windy conditions, the world No. 2 hit an excruciating 88 unforced errors.

"I really think I played -- I'm trying to think of a word that's not obscene -- but that's how I played," Williams said afterward. "You really have to go back to the drawing board, because it's quite frankly unprofessional."

Bolting out of the box

Serena has never been one to overplay. This might be one of the reasons for her extraordinary longevity.

A variety of injuries have forced her to miss significant time over the years. Since 1998, when she broke into the top 20 at the age of 16, Williams has produced an average annual record of 40-7. In 2013, she returned to the No. 1 ranking with a 78-4 mark (.951).

Last year, she played in only eight tournaments and went a far more modest 38-6 (.864), her lowest match total since 2011.

On Saturday, she said, last year's schedule would be "perfect" for 2017. But even if she plays only eight tournaments, history suggests Serena can still be formidable. Somehow over the years, Williams has demonstrated an uncanny ability to accelerate from zero to 60

"I'd look at 2006 and 2007," said Tracy Austin, a Tennis Channel analyst and two-time US open winner. "She finished the year at No. 95 in the world, missed two Slams because of injury -- and then she won the title in 2007. Serena can do that better than anybody.

"Obviously, she's an incredible athlete and competitor. She wants to prove she's still dominant. With a lighter schedule, she's much more motivated and will be fresh in Australia. It's so early, so you have to really ramp it up."

As tennis professionals get older, it becomes more and more difficult to do the diligence -- the drudgery of fitness training -- in the offseason months. After two abbreviated seasons, can Serena summon the motivation to put in sufficient work to regain the No. 1 ranking?

"I question Serena -- if you're paying attention, you do," cautioned Mary Carillo, a Tennis Channel analyst. "Her offseason started in September. You're always wondering, 'How hard did these people work when we weren't watching them? How many matches does a 35-year-old with an injury history need?'

"And now you have to throw in the fact that there are people in that locker room who feel they have a shot at beating her, people who never believed that before."

Williams' first three losses of the year were to veterans Kerber,? Victoria Azarenka?and? Svetlana Kuznetsova, but the last three were at the hands of Garbine Muguruza (22 years old) in the French Open final, then Elina Svitolina (21) in the third round at the Rio Olympics and Karolina Pliskova (24) in the US Open semifinals.

Will and clarity

Mouratoglou oversees a burgeoning tennis academy in Nice, France, but finds time to make his way to Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, for occasional training sessions with Williams.

"Every year is the same," Mouratoglou said. "Before every preseason, we talk about what we're going to do this year, what new things are we going to bring to make her progress."

The learning process, he insisted, is what makes that drudgery palatable.

"I think she's motivated by the tournaments and the competition," Mouratoglou said. "That's why she's practicing and learning new things. It's the only way to get results."

As always, Carillo pointed out, Serena's success will depend more on her than any external factors.

"Can she win another Slam?" Carillo asked. "Yeah. She should be able to win more than one. It all depends on what she has done with her time and energy and what she continues to feel about this game. Serena, it sounds like she wants to hang around.

"But she's a lot closer to Sampras than [Andre] Agassi. Pete wanted to win majors. I can't imagine Serena wants to hang around if she doesn't win. That's not Serena."

On Saturday, Serena, as usual, declined to discuss her Slam count, or the immediate possibility of moving past Graf.

She was more than happy, however, to elaborate on her recent engagement to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian.

"I've said from the beginning, I just didn't want to think about it until after Australia because I was, like, 'Grand Slams mean a lot to me,'" Serena said, smiling. "I was, like, 'Well, I'm not going to think about it.'"

Her social posts made it sound quite romantic.

"It was, it was," she said. "I'm actually just a really good writer, so ... If you guys want any tips, I'm around."

This brought a hearty laugh from the media crowd in the intimate interview amphitheater.

We'll know in a few weeks if Serena Williams has the season's first last laugh.