After her latest long and unexpected break from the sport she once dominated, Serena Williams will return to competition next week at a new tournament, the Top Seed Open in Lexington, Ky.
What’s different about this layoff is that Williams’s comeback to tour-level tennis will be part of everyone else’s.
Professional players have been on hiatus because the coronavirus pandemic shut down both the men’s and women’s circuits in early March. The question is, how does that affect Williams’s chances of winning the United States Open, the Grand Slam tournament scheduled to begin on Aug. 31?
“I think she has the same chances that she has had since the birth of her daughter,” her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said in a telephone interview from France this week before traveling to Kentucky. “She absolutely has the level. It still depends a great deal on her whether she wins a Grand Slam. The Covid, for me, has changed absolutely nothing in that department.”
Mouratoglou, who has coached Williams since 2012 and helped her win 10 of her 23 Grand Slam singles titles, spent much of the pandemic break at his academy near Nice, France, starting an exhibition league, Ultimate Tennis Showdown, designed to particularly appeal to younger, non-hardcore tennis fans.
But he still believes in the old guard when it comes to women’s tennis and has remained adamant since Williams became a mother in 2017 that she still has what it takes, even at this late stage in her career, to win her 24th Grand Slam singles title and tie Margaret Court’s record.
She has come agonizingly close. Since returning to the tour in 2018 after a difficult childbirth, she has reached four Grand Slam finals — two at Wimbledon and two at the U.S. Open — losing all of them in straight sets.
After winning her first tournament as a mother in January in Auckland, New Zealand, she arrived with renewed momentum at this year’s Australian Open, only to play one of her shakiest recent matches in a third-round loss to Wang Qiang: the highest-ranked Chinese player, whom she had overwhelmed, 6-1, 6-0, at the 2019 U.S. Open.
There were doubts about Williams’s fitness and ability to handle the biggest moments before the pandemic, and those doubts remain as she returns at age 38 with the U.S. Open again in her sights.
“She has been training very well,” said Mouratoglou, who has not seen Williams in person since early March but has received regular updates on her practices. “She is still motivated, and I think she will be ready. The only thing that is missing are the matches, the opponent across the net, and there is nothing that can replace the feeling of competition, and that’s exactly why we are going to Lexington instead of waiting. She needs the matches. We’ll see how many she gets.”
Williams, who has a history of blood clots and has had life-threatening pulmonary embolisms that affected her lungs, could potentially face greater risks than an average world-class athlete if she contracts Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.
“The best thing for her is definitely not to catch it,” said Mouratoglou, emphasizing that he is not a physician and not qualified to comment on the potential risks.
Williams, who declined to be interviewed for this article through her management team, last competed on Feb. 8, when she was upset by Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia in a Fed Cup match.
Since then, she has mostly been at home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., with her husband Alexis Ohanian and their 2-year-old daughter Olympia.
She and Ohanian, a venture capitalist, have invested in a National Women’s Soccer League expansion franchise in Los Angeles (Olympia is an investor, too).
Williams, who was active on social media during the shutdown, often kept it lighthearted: singing along to the Frozen 2 soundtrack with Olympia and posting a workout with her older sister Venus Williams where they adopted Arnold Schwarzenegger accents and talked about “pumping iron.”
But she also has ventured into deeper and more topical territory: focusing on the Black Lives Matter movement and social justice.
On Instagram, she interviewed Ohanian at home about his decision in June to step down from the board of directors of Reddit, the social network he co-founded, and to call for an African-American to be chosen as his replacement. The conversation focused on Ohanian’s increased awareness of his “white privilege” and his desire to “lean into the pain” of knowing that he is “racist because of a system I inherited.”
Williams later interviewed Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative who has advocated for prisoners on death row and for lowering the rate of incarceration in the United States.
She called him “a super hero” and talked about the resistance she and her sister faced when they arrived on tour and eventually dominated in the early 2000s.
“When Venus and I were winning every week, Grand Slam finals every time, it wasn’t a celebration on tour,” she said, reflecting on waiting in the locker room when Venus was playing and listening to the crowd’s reaction.
If Serena heard loud cheers, she said her “heart would sink” because she knew Venus had lost a point or the match.
“But if it was complete silence, then I would be like, ‘OK, she’s winning,’” Serena said.
The negative reaction at that early stage was certainly not all because of race. The Williamses’ initial Grand Slam duels and finals were often, awkward constrained occasions because the sisters were so close off the court (as they remain) and unable to compete with their customary fire.
But Serena emphasized the challenges that come with succeeding in a predominantly white sport.
“I played not only against my opponent,” she said. “I played against crowds. I played against fans, and I’ve played against people, and as things have gone on, I’ve been able to have a tremendous amount of more fans, and it’s been a wonderful experience, but I worked really hard to get this experience.”
Williams complained about at one stage being “underpaid”: likely a reference to having lower off-court earnings than Maria Sharapova earlier in her career despite having a superior record. Williams also expressed frustration at the way her own game is sometimes characterized.
“Tennis is a mental game and Black people are athletic,” she said, referring to the stereotype long held by some that Black athletes succeed because of strength and athletic ability, while their white counterparts rely on their intelligence. “So whenever I would win, it’s like, ‘I’m so athletic.’ No, actually I use my brain a lot more than I get credit for. I really use my brain a lot out on the court. Yeah, I’m powerful, but the most powerful players don’t win 23 Grand Slams.”
Winning her 24th with a new generation of players rising would be perhaps her finest achievement. The situation in which tennis finds itself only makes the chase more intriguing.
“If she wins this U.S. Open as her 24th, it will be the toughest Grand Slam title I think she’s ever going to win or maybe anybody for that matter,” said Chris Evert, the ESPN analyst and an 18-time major singles champion.
Evert said players have long complained about the Open coming near the end of the season when they are tired and complained about the traffic and hectic atmosphere in New York.
“That’s a piece of cake compared to this,” she said of the 2020 Open.
It will not have a full-strength field. Ashleigh Barty of Australia, the No. 1 women’s singles player, already has withdrawn. So have No. 5 Elina Svitolina and No. 7 Kiki Bertens, and No. 2 Simona Halep is leaning that way, too. But major threats remain. Will Williams’s deep experience and greater familiarity with comebacks give her an added edge against her younger opponents? Or will she lack the runway to find top gear?
She could have returned for the doubleheader later this month in New York: the Western & Southern Open followed by the U.S. Open in a so-called bubble with strict health and safety restrictions.
But she decided instead to give herself more matches, which came as quite a surprise to Jon Sanders, tournament director of the new Top Seed Open, a lower-tier WTA event.
“My initial response was, ‘This isn’t real right?’” he said this week. “But I was assured it was, and we are honored to have her want to make this part of her U.S. Open preparation. We take it as a great responsibility to make sure she stays safe when she is here.”
Williams, ranked No. 9 in singles, is the only top 10 player in the tournament, which will be the first tour event in North America since the pandemic and will be played without spectators. But the field has ample star power with No. 11 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, No. 14 Johanna Konta of Britain, American teens Amanda Anisimova and Coco Gauff and the 40-year-old Venus Williams.
During the break many players took part in exhibitions or World TeamTennis, the mixed-gender league that played from July 12 to Aug. 2 at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia to create a protected environment.
Though Venus Williams and Sofia Kenin, the 21-year-old American who won this year’s Australian Open, played the W.T.T. season, Serena chose to continue training at home.
“I think those who have managed to get some competition will have a real advantage, because they will be operational very quickly, if not right away,” Mouratoglou said. “Those who have not competed for six months will be starting a bit over, but for someone who has so much experience like Serena, I think that will be less of a problem.”
Players should also be particularly eager and likely healthier, at least in the short term, after using the longest break of most of their careers to heal nagging injuries. There is still a concern that the demands of intense competition after a long layoff could lead quickly to new injuries.
“After waiting so long, the motivation and enthusiasm will be far above average, and that could compensate for some weaknesses,” Mouratoglou said.
Often Williams’s cheerleader in chief, Mouratoglou does acknowledge that the opposition has played a role in Williams’s Grand Slam drought. She was beaten by tour veterans Angelique Kerber and Halep at the last two Wimbledons and by young talents Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu at the last two U.S. Opens.
“They did play fabulous matches, and if they had not played as well, Serena would have had the chance to come back,” he said. “The others are of course progressing and are strong, and I am not trying to undervalue them. But Serena is Serena, and the real Serena in full possession of her powers and with a winning mind-set, the person who will stop her is not yet born. Actually she is surely already born but she’s not ready yet.”
For Mouratoglou, the keys for Williams to break her streak in New York are optimum fitness, quality matches in the lead-up and the right mental approach, likely a new mental approach.
Blocking out No. 24 is not an option.
“When you have an elephant in the room, you can say you don’t see it, but it’s not easy to believe it,” he said.
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