Serena Williams opens door to imminent US Open and then Roland Garros
After six-month hiatus, Williams adds: “Just living for the day, for the moment - I don’t plan”
After its tentative return to the world stage in Palermo last week, women’s tennis this week sees some of its biggest names break cover for the first time in six months.
On the red clay of Prague, world No2 Simona Halep returns to player her first tournament since winning in Dubai in February, and her first match on clay since reaching the quarter-finals of Roland Garros well over a year ago. And all the signs currently suggest that Halep will stay in Europe to focus on her most successful Major, the French Open.
However, another tennis spotlight will turn this week on the United States, where a new tournament, the Top Seed Open in Kentucky, finds itself in the unexpected position of hosting the first tour event on North American hard courts in almost a year: tennis came to a grinding halt due to the coronavirus pandemic just as the Indian Wells/Miami double in March was about to begin.
The Kentucky event will provide a welcome early pointer to the form and fitness of some of the women who plan to play under the heavy constraints of a behind-closed-doors US Open come the end of August. Four former Major champions feature: Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Victoria Azarenka, and Sloane Stephens.
Stir into the draw the No2 seed Aryna Sabalenka, winner in Doha on the eve of lockdown, No3 seed Johanna Konta, whose last event of 2019 was a career-best quarter-final run at the US Open, and the unseeded 16-year-old Coco Gauff.
However, Serena Williams, who approaches her 39th birthday, 21 years after winning the first of her six US Open titles, is sure to be the centre of attention. There can be few things she has not experienced or overcome, and a six-month break from tennis competition is nothing new. She, more than most players, has proved on numerous occasions that she can bounce back from long lay-offs with aplomb.
Take 2007’s Australian Open, where she returned from repeated problems to win her first title at any tournament since the 2005 Australian Open. Or 2010, where she won Wimbledon without dropping a set but then stepped on glass, faced life-threatening illness, but returned a year later to win Stanford, Toronto and reach the US Open final.
In 2015, she completed a second ‘Serena Slam’ by winning her sixth Wimbledon and then got her 23rd Major in Australian in 2017, only to later reveal that she had been pregnant at the time. Cue another year’s absence, only to return and reach four Major finals in the space of 16 months.
So the gap since she played her last match in Fed Cup in February is small beer to a woman aiming to win her record-equalling 24th Major on home soil.
Yet in a Zoom press conference ahead of her campaign in Kentucky this week, she admitted that she has not discounted also travelling to Europe to play the rescheduled Roland Garros at the end of September—COVID-19 developments and restrictions permitted:
“I see myself doing it all—if it happens.”
Of course the same concerns and uncertainties that have hit everyone else during these unprecedented times have also affected her own perspective and plans.
“I’ve played through so many generations and so many different things, and I honestly feel cool to be able to play through this era and say, ‘I remember when it first happened.’ That’s how I’m trying to look at it, because it’s something that the whole world is going through, not just us as tennis players or us as athletes.
“And right now, I think that sport is one of the few things that can almost provide a deep breath of fresh air or a sigh of relief to people that are still stuck in their homes.”
Asked if she still hopes to play at the Tokyo Olympics—the event was postponed by 12 months to the summer of 2021—she revealed that new, enforced perspective:
“Tokyo and the Olympics are just too far ahead for me right now. We’ll have to wait to see what happens in the Fall – I don’t know what to expect. One thing I have learned in this pandemic is, don’t plan. So literally I’m just living for the day, for the moment—in a good way—so I don’t plan.”
So how has one of the most famous athletes in the world been keeping mind and body healthy? Well it helps if your husband—Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian—sets about building you a gym and tennis court. She laughed as she admitted:
“It’s my own sanctuary, and I thought, why haven’t I done this 20 years ago?”
As for fitness, and her enforced absence, she was clear-sighted:
“The biggest difference is that it wasn’t just from me being injured. Everyone had to take a break and a pause, so it will be really fun and interesting to see how we play. I feel like everyone has the opportunity to actually be more fit now, because we spent so much time at home… to just work on yourself, your life and your game.
“My physios are in Europe, actually, so I had to figure out a way to find someone to work with me in in Florida in my bubble that I could trust. That was interesting because you are training every day because you have nothing else to do at home, and I thought, I also need some physical work.”
Williams admitted to also being hyper-cautious—noting in the process that Florida is currently one of the worst affected regions.
“I’ve been a bit of a recluse. I started distancing early March. I don’t have full lung capacity so I’m not sure what would happen to me: I’m sure I would be OK, but I don’t want to find out. I’m super, super careful with what I’ve been doing, and everyone in the Serena bubble is really protected. Because at the end of the day, it’s cool to play tennis, but this is my life and this is my health.”
However, even the ‘reclusive’ Williams is looking forward to getting back on the road.
“We’ve been stuck at home for six months and part of me loved it. I’ve never been home for that long since I was a teenager. Even when I was pregnant, I was travelling a lot to so many different places, so it’s been a long time since I’ve been home that long. And it was nice, but it’s also a really cool opportunity to come to Kentucky and be isolating in a different place. Nice to kind of get out…”
The tennis gods have not been particularly kind to her—or perhaps to her opponents. The draw poses the prospect of elder sister Venus or fellow former No1 Azarenka in Round 2, though the Belarusian has played and lost only one match this year after withdrawing from the Australian Open for personal reasons.
Indeed Azarenka is also no stranger to repeated absences in recent years, both for injury and personal problems. Also talking via Zoon, she shared what many fellow competitors are experiencing:
“I mean, there’s a lot of restrictions—for our safety, but obviously it’s something to get used to. It’s going to be a little tough to adjust. None of us knows when it’s going to be over, so I think if everyone takes 100 percent seriousness and awareness of the situation and brings their best responsibility, I hope we can have something safe and successful.”
On the opening day of play in Kentucky, Konta opens against Marie Bouzkova, ranked 48, while Heather Watson, ranked 51, plays Jennifer Brady, No49, in the same quarter.