Serena’s latest Indian Wells return could also be her biggest challenge
Hampered by ailments to her back, ankle and quadriceps, Williams began a four-match losing streak — the longest of her illustrious career — when she was upset by Victoria Azarenka in the Miami Open final. She then lost opening round matches in Barcelona, Rome and Madrid.
Two weeks later, her 18-match Grand Slam tournament win streak was snapped in the quarterfinals of the French Open.
But Williams battled back, playing through pain to win Wimbledon singles and doubles titles, and then captured the Tour Championship in Qatar and the No. 1 ranking again to finish the season.
In 2010, Williams sat for months with a leg injury, and in more recent years, knee, ankle and back pain have forced her to step away from the game for weeks and months at a time. Yet she somehow always managed to return and rise back to the top.
Through the years, Williams has been a model of longevity and has cemented her legacy as perhaps the greatest tennis player of all time, male or female, winning more Grand Slam titles (23) than anyone in the Open Era— including a staggering 10 since her 30th birthday.
Though Williams did play doubles for the United States with her sister Venus at the Fed Cup last month in North Carolina, her first singles match on the World Tour is expected to be Wednesday, March 7 or Thursday, March 8 in the first round of the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
She played her last match in the 2017 Australian Open final, which she won over her sister.
The question that will surround Williams here is whether she can once again rise to the top and perhaps advance her Hall of Fame legacy even further.
“I don’t think it’s going to be an easy thing,” said International Tennis Hall of Famer Rosie Casals said. “It’ll be interesting to see if she still has that same drive and commitment.”
Williams certainly will not be the first player to return to the Tour after time off during a pregnancy. Multiple women have won majors after returning to the Tour as mothers.
Australian Evonne Goolagong Cawley, a seven-time Grand Slam winner did it, eventually winning Wimbledon as a mother in 1980. Another Aussie, Margaret Court, the sport’s only 24-time Grand Slam champion, won majors after the birth of her first two children.
When Court became pregnant for the first time in 1971, some figured she’d stop playing tennis professionally. Instead, wanting to become the first mother to be the top-ranked player in the world, she played her way back to the top of the rankings in 1973, winning three majors — the Australian, French and US Open — the same year. She added another US Open title in 1975, following the birth of her second child. Kim Clijsters is the most recent player to return to play at a high level after a pregnancy, winning the US Open in 2009 and 2010, and finishing the ’10 season ranked No. 3 in the world.
Not that there aren’t real challenges associated with managing life as a professional athlete as a mother or father.
“It was hard for me, mentally, to leave my daughter and go practice,” said Nicole Castrale, a Coachella Valley native who returned to the LPGA Tour after the birth of her daughter in 2012. “I often felt very guilty, like I’m at the golf course all day and I should be with my daughter.
“I would say the guilt was the hardest part because I felt like I should be with her all the time.”
Castrale said one challenge was how she had to completely re-arrange her travel schedule and routine as her daughter began to travel with her on Tour at five months old. It took a strong support team to make it all work, she said.
With Indian Wells being a two-hour drive from their home in Los Angeles, Williams’ daughter and husband, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, are expected to make the trip with her for her return.
It will be her second big comeback to the tournament, after she returned to the event in 2015 following a 14-year boycott. Williams was booed heavily in 2001, despite winning the singles title, in an ugly incident that Williams believes was racially charged.
Her return, which she described as “one of the greatest moments of my career,” was sublime. Her mother and one of her sisters were in attendance, and all three shed tears on the court as Williams was greeted by a 57-second standing ovation prior to her first match back.
Because her injury-protected ranking doesn’t protect her seeding, it’s expected that Williams will enter the Indian Wells draw unseeded and have to play a first round match.
Victoria Azarenka, who is also returning to Indian Wells this year after giving birth to her son Leo in December 2016, won the BNP Paribas Open final over Williams as an unseeded player in March 2016. Winning the tournament as an unseeded player, however, is not easy to do.
“It’s probably not easy doing that at 26, let alone 36,” ESPN tennis analyst Brad Gilbert said. “But like I’ve said, never underestimate Williams.”
Some have suggested that the 15 months off could be physically rejuvenating for Williams, who has now played professionally for 20 years. As we saw last year with Roger Federer, another 36-year-old at the top of the sport, taking time away from the Tour can save a player from the rigors of the weekly grind of professional tennis.
“I mean, 36 is older than a lot of them, but I think Roger (Federer) has shown that the age is not the issue, it’s how you manage it,” Casals said. “I think she’s going to have to find how to manage her playing schedule with her new role as a mother and a wife.”
Indian Wells tournament director Tommy Haas has two daughters. He said when they were born they provided a new drive for him on the tennis court.
“It might be a little bit different this time around,” Haas said of Williams’ return. “Maybe she’s got a new motivation. I know it motivated me more when I had kids, to keep going and keep trying.
“I’m certainly nowhere close to what Serena has accomplished, so for her to still want to come back and play, you just have to admire that.”
In the past, Williams has made it clear that part of the motivation moving forward will be to match and even break Court’s record of 24 majors. She tried to return in January at the Australian Open in Melbourne, but said she wasn’t quite ready and withdrew before the draw was announced.
Casals said it’ll be natural for a player to shake some initial rust after more than a year away, though she is not alone in her belief that Williams can once again rise to the top of the sport and, for at least one final time, dominate.
“I mean, it’s kind of like Roger and what motivates him,” Casals said. “He still wants to be the best, and I think Serena’s on that same field where she still can be the best.”
“Physically, she’s capable. I think, yeah, she’s definitely capable.”