Within her camp, it was already considered unlikely that she would play in Melbourne, but Williams waited to announce her final decision to withdraw.
“Doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Chris Evert, the ESPN analyst and former world No. 1 who knows Williams well. “It’s easy to underestimate the demands, responsibility and love a mother feels for her child. It’s a life changer. She really didn’t have the time or the focus to commit to two to three months of intense training.
“I’m happy to see her enjoy her new family as she will never get this time back. Even if she comes back in, let’s say, March, it’s still a long year. Kudos to her priorities.”
Williams, who reclaimed the No. 1 ranking by winning last year’s Australian Open, is still ranked No. 22 and would have been seeded if she had played in Melbourne. But with her withdrawal, she will drop out of the official rankings altogether after the Australian Open ends on Jan. 28.
She will not be seeded for other events when she returns to tournament play but, according to WTA rules, she will have a protected ranking that will allow her automatic entry into eight tournaments, including two Grand Slam events, in the 12 months following her comeback.
As one of the greatest players of all time and the biggest draw in the women’s game, she also would presumably have no problem acquiring wild card berths into additional events.
The first significant tournament she is likely to play is the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., that begins March 7.
“Perfect time,” Evert said.
But Williams will have to wait until at least the year’s second Grand Slam tournament, the French Open in May, to resume her pursuit of Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
Williams has won 23 — more than anyone else in the Open era, which began in 1968 (Court’s career spanned the amateur and Open eras).
Her withdrawal leaves the Australian Open increasingly bereft of major stars. Andy Murray, the former men’s No. 1, and Kei Nishikori, Asia’s top singles player, have withdrawn with injuries.
Novak Djokovic, a six-time Australian Open champion, is in Australia but still uncertain about playing in the Open because of a chronic right elbow injury that has kept him off the circuit since last July.
Rafael Nadal, the men’s No. 1 who has delayed the start to his season because of continuing knee problems, also has arrived in Melbourne and practiced at Melbourne Park on Friday.
It remains to be seen who will make it to the starting line when the Open begins on Jan. 15.