If you asked someone a month ago whether Serena Williams would be able to reassert her dominion over her peers upon her return, the answer most likely was an unqualified “yes.” But after the recent, dazzling Australian Open, the more prudent answer might be “maybe.”
After more than a year away from the game, Williams will return to action this weekend at Fed Cup, which is seemingly prep for her more anticipated appearance at Indian Wells in early March.
The 36-year-old mother of an infant daughter, Williams has proved time and again that it’s just plain silly to write off her chances for any reason whatsoever. But she’s also returning to a tour that seems to have evolved from a free-for-all into one featuring a deep roster of solid Grand Slam title-worthy contenders.
Williams is returning with a “special ranking” of No. 1, because that was her status when she left the tour. While that stipulation can be used to enter tournaments, it cannot be used for seeding. When it comes the draws, she will certainly be the most dangerous “floater” in the history of the game. But these days, any slot in the draw is potentially perilous.
“There are so many great players now,” British star Johanna Konta, who will defend her Miami Open title in March, told reporters as she prepared for the first major of the year in Melbourne. An excellent hard-court and grass-court player, Konta started the year 2-2 partly because she played 2017 US Open finalist Madison Keys in the first round at Brisbane, then drew former world No. 2 and former Wimbledon finalist Agnieszka Radwanska as her first opponent in Sydney.
“It’s not specific to Grand Slams,” Konta said of the depth of the WTA field. “It’s every week.”
That’s relevant, because Williams will need to get some traction as she seeks get back into the unique flow of match play.
Konta, a quarterfinalist a year ago in Australia, lost in the second round this year. But by and large, the anarchic, unpredictable tournament so many predicted did not materialize. Instead, the women produced terrific matches pitting legitimate, mostly veteran contenders led by eventual champion Caroline Wozniacki.
How deep is the WTA Tour? Before she left to have her child last year, Williams ran the table at the Australian Open. The women who won the three other majors last year weren’t even factors at the first Grand Slam this year. Garbine Muguruza, Jelena Ostapenko and Sloane Stephens were all out of commission by the fourth round. And it had no visible effect on the quality of the tournament.
The upcoming, combined outdoor hard-court events at Indian Wells and Miami comprise the “Sunshine Double.” That’s where Williams will likely gauge her ability to compete in the year’s three remaining majors. She has won Miami a remarkable eight times, but has taken the Indian Wells title only twice, largely a result of the Williams sisters’ 14-year boycott of the event. Serena returned to play in 2015 but came up short in both her appearances.
Williams last played a full year (four majors) in 2016. She was spectacular, losing a total of six matches to (in order starting at the beginning of the year) Angelique Kerber (Australian Open), Victoria Azarenka (Indian Wells), Svetlana Kuznetsova (Miami), Muguruza (French Open), Elina Svitolina (Olympic Games), Karolina Pliskova (US Open).
Among those, only 32-year-old Kuznetsova is unlikely to be a problem for Williams. She hasn’t played since September and is still recovering from wrist surgery. All the others are simply more experienced while also young enough to be a factor.
Azarenka, 28, also merits an asterisk. Like Williams, she has an infant child, but a bitter custody dispute has drastically limited her participation on the tour. A former No. 1 and two-time Australian Open champion, Azarenka hasn’t played a competitive match since she lost to Halep in the fourth round of Wimbledon last year. But Azarenka has been devastating in the desert, compiling a 29-7 Indian Wells record with two titles. More significantly, perhaps, is that she’s beaten Williams in each of the Sunshine Double events.
Kerber, 30, experienced a slump in 2017. But her run to this year’s Australian Open semifinals suggests she’s back — with a vengeance. While startlingly inconsistent, Muguruza, just 24, has the firepower to trade shots with anyone. She demonstrated it in her win over Venus Williams in last year’s Wimbledon final.
Svitolina, the baby in the bunch at 23, was ranked No. 20 when she knocked Serena out of the Olympics in 2016. But last year, she compiled the highest winning percentage on the WTA (.791). She bagged five titles and has built her ranking up to No. 3. As for Pliskova, 25, she seems to be losing her Grand Slam jitters. She posted the second highest winning percentage (.741) on the tour last year, and had a brief stint at No. 1.
Let’s not forget this year’s Aussie Open finalists, Simona Halep and Wozniacki. Then there’s Madison Keys.
Halep’s gritty performances made believers even out of many who doubted that she had sufficient determination to win a major. She made a heroic effort in Melbourne despite falling just short in the final. Wozniacki had that “best player never to win a major” albatross around her neck for years. Her confidence has to be soaring now.
“I think I have improved a lot this tournament,” Halep said after losing the Aussie Open final. “I’m leaving Australia with many good thoughts and many positive things because what I’ve done these two weeks I never did, me, in the past. So it’s OK.”
Kerber, Wozniacki, Pliskova and others are also entitled to look forward to the hard-court season with realistic high hopes and refreshed ambitions. We’ll see of their grand plans can withstand the reality check that Serena Williams is likely to force upon them.