The world No4 picked up the Premier titles in Brisbane and Dubai, reached the quarters of the Australian Open, and last night, in one of tennis’s most famous venues, New York’s Madison Square Gardens, she even picked up the quarter-million-dollar title in the exhibition knock-out event, Tie-Break-Tens—and amid some pretty formidable competition.
It will not take her to 300 match-wins—that will have to wait a few days when she begins her campaign at one of the biggest WTA tournaments of the year in Indian Wells: She remains at 299, and an impressive 14-2 for the year. But it is no bad way to launch her month in North America.
Yet with all respect to the fine 23-year-old player from the Ukraine, she was probably not the main attraction for the packed MSG. For it was at the first all-woman playing of the Tie Break Tens event that the greatest player of her generation, Serena Williams, had chosen to make her preparatory appearance for her return to the WTA tour in Indian Wells.
Aside from a doubles rubber in Fed Cup and an exhibition match in Abu Dhabi in January, Williams has not played since winning her 23rd Major at the Australian Open 14 months ago.
She was, she afterwards revealed, almost two months pregnant at the time, and went on to have her daughter Alexis Olympia, in September. She also revealed, in a long and fascinating interview for Vogue in January that she had suffered a pulmonary embolism after an emergency Caesarean section, and then returned to surgery for life-saving treatment.
Yet here she was, six months later, eager to face the challenge of the tennis tour again, and with a few new incentives. One of them is to try and play long enough for her daughter to watch and appreciate what she has achieved.
Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, told WTAtennis.com that she aimed to win the other three Majors again: The French and US Opens, and Wimbledon.
But she admitted to the BBC ahead of the Tie Break Tens event just how difficult this would be to fulfil:
“It’s been really, really difficult, but I keep going, and I know that I might not be at my best yet, but I’m getting there and every day is a new day and every day I should be getting better. As long as I’m moving forward, even if it’s at a turtle’s pace, then I’m OK with that.”
She was in great company in New York when it comes to tough women who have overcome challenges in their tennis careers.
Also playing were elder sister Venus Williams, who has wrestled with the debilitating Sjogren’s syndrome since 2011 but has remained within the elite ranks of tennis, and last year reached two Major finals plus the semis of another.
Also making a return after almost five years away was Marion Bartoli.
The French woman shocked the tennis world when she retired after winning her first and only Major title at Wimbledon in 2013. The former No7, now aged just 33, has not had it easy in the interim. But after an abusive relationship, depression, illness, and loss of self-esteem, despite forging a new career as a commentator, she again surprised the tennis world by announcing her intention to return to the pro tour. She has been in training for six months, and hopes to rejoin her colleagues in Miami in a fortnight’s time.
First, though, she stepped out with the Williams, Svitolina, Coco Vandeweghe, Daniela Hantuchová, Sorana Cirstea, and Shuai Zhang in New York as a taster—and as the luck of the draw would have it, faced Serena Williams in the first match. Williams won, 10 points to five, though that was hardly relevant in the wider context.
“Honestly, with everything I’ve been through, my happiest is just being out here… It’s been fun [getting back to work], I’ve been having so much fun being a mom, and having time off is good too… I’m just excited to be back and playing here, in Madison Square Garden.”
“I’ve been trying to get back into playing tennis, which is something that I love the most, and to have this experience with Serena who is my greatest friend, means so much. I was so excited for this match.”
For the Williams, of course, this was just an hors d’oeuvre to the challenges of the coming days. While the eight women were thrilling New York, the draw was throwing the sisters into the same segment of the Indian Wells draw.
Serena, after her year’s absence, arrives without a ranking and thus unseeded, and will first play the 53-ranked Zarina Diyas—a woman who is a dozen years younger than the two-time former champion.
If Williams wins, she is likely to face the No29 seed Kiki Bertens, and if all goes well and Williams makes the third round, she could meet the No8 seed, her sister Venus.
No-one said it would be easy, coming back after so long away, at 36 years old, and with the physical trauma that this remarkable champion has overcome in recent months. But if anyone can, Serena Williams can—maybe not in Indian Wells, but just wait until Wimbledon.
MORE: The latest football news
MORE: The latest tennis news
BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge