After ‘a Lot of Ups and Downs,’ Serena Williams Nears Her Return

After ‘a Lot of Ups and Downs,’ Serena Williams Nears Her Return

She last played an official match on Jan. 28, 2017, when she beat her sister Venus Williams to win the Australian Open without dropping a set in the tournament.

Even after Friday’s draw, it was unclear whether she would make her comeback here in singles or doubles (or both). She was not in the singles lineup for the opening-day matches on Saturday. Instead, Venus Williams and CoCo Vandeweghe were listed to play for the United States: Williams against Arantxa Rus and Vandeweghe against Richel Hogenkamp.

For now, Serena Williams is scheduled to play only doubles. She and Lauren Davis would be in the final match on Sunday and would probably be meaningless in light of the teams’ relative strengths.

“We’re going to be like Serena and stay in the moment,” Kathy Rinaldi, the United States Fed Cup captain, told me on Friday. “Tomorrow we know Venus and CoCo are playing, and then we’ll make a decision each day like we normally do at Fed Cup. We don’t plan everything out. Things happen, and we have to see how everyone is playing and everyone is feeling.”

Saturday’s lineup will come as a surprise to the casual fans who cannot imagine Serena Williams, winner of an Open-era record 23 Grand Slam singles titles, failing to get priority. But it makes sense in this unusual context.

Venus Williams, at No. 8, and Vandeweghe, at No. 17, are the two highest-ranked players on the American team. Both played full and deeply successful seasons in 2017 when Serena was giving birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia, and marrying Alexis Ohanian. Vandeweghe also was the undefeated leader of the American team that won the Fed Cup in Belarus in November.

For the first time since she was a teenager, Serena Williams has no ranking, which has not gone unnoticed. Erik Poel, the director of the Dutch Tennis Federation, jokingly referred to that strange state of affairs at the official team dinner on Thursday night as he talked about reasons for the heavily underdog Dutch team to be optimistic.

“We were looking, and a certain S. Williams didn’t even have a ranking,” Poel said, acting as if that certain S. Williams were an unknown player.

Williams, who was sitting nearby, hunched forward in her chair and roared with laughter while Rinaldi reached back and gave Poel a high five.

But everyone at the tables in Asheville and elsewhere knows full well what S. Williams is capable of, and though it is difficult to imagine her getting back to her peak, who truly has the moxie to proclaim that she won’t resume being a champion?

“She’s coming back because she believes she can win, otherwise she wouldn’t be coming back,” Mouratoglou said in a telephone interview from France this week. “It’s that simple.”

Rinaldi was tossing balls and occasional advice to Williams on Friday as Williams exchanged groundstrokes with Vandeweghe during their practice session. Williams crushed certain shots with customary power and precision but mistimed many others, muttering to herself and shadow-stroking between rallies.

She was in a playful mood, dancing as she walked to the baseline and cracking jokes in her chair during breaks and between deep breaths, but she was all business between the lines.

“I’m sure she does want it to go faster,” Rinaldi said of the process. “She’s got high expectations obviously, and it’s tough to manage those in the beginning and be patient with herself. But as you can see, I think that’s what makes her so great, too, is that she is tough on herself and has that drive. She wants to be back, wants to be playing and wants to be winning titles, it seems, and absolutely nobody knows how to do that better than she does.”

So what is reasonable in terms of expectations? A few months for Williams to get her bearings, drop some more weight and potentially pose a threat at Wimbledon in July? Or something more ambitious?

“I wouldn’t be surprised if she steps back into it and does well, to be honest with you,” Rinaldi said. “I’ve seen her this week, and every day she’s better and stronger, and the desire is there.”

Olympia, now five months old, is here in Asheville with Williams, who experienced complications after giving birth by emergency cesarean section in September. She has said she spent the first six weeks of motherhood in bed. After her wedding in November, Williams resumed training in earnest in December, a few weeks before she played and lost a lucrative exhibition match to Jelena Ostapenko in Abu Dhabi on Dec. 30.

Ostapenko, the reigning French Open champion, kindly stopped hitting many balls to the corners as the match progressed, and Williams looked underwhelmed with her own play.

Skipping last month’s Australian Open seemed a sage decision.

“She really started from zero, doing no physical work for months,” Mouratoglou said. “After the pregnancy and the complications, at the beginning she could only do 30 minutes of crosscourt hitting. We couldn’t call it real training.”

Mouratoglou said he planned to join Williams next week in the United States to prepare for the tournament in Indian Wells, Calif., in March. He anticipates her playing a limited schedule in 2018: Indian Wells, Miami, Rome, Madrid, the French Open, Wimbledon, a hardcourt tournament in North America, the United States Open and then, if she qualifies, the WTA Finals in Singapore.

There is also the Fed Cup, for which she needs to make herself available for three ties in the next two and a half years in order to be eligible for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

“She can’t do seasons like 2013 or 2014,” Mouratoglou said. “In 2013, she won 11 tournaments. That was herculean. She doesn’t have the same age, and I’m not sure she even wants that anymore. The focus for her will be on the big moments.”

That means the majors, where she is one championship away from tying Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.

I asked Williams on Friday if winning No. 25 was the ultimate goal as she returns.

“Right now, my main goal is just to stay in the moment,” she said. “It goes unsaid 25 is obviously something that I would love, but I’d hate to limit myself.”

Consider that a warning to the rest of the women’s tour, where no single player has managed to dominate in Williams’s extended absence. And consider it a sign that motherhood and marriage may have altered her perspective but have done nothing to lower her aim.

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