Serena Williams’ comeback has been cut short by a knee injury to her partner, Ons Jabeur, and the pair have pulled out of their doubles semi-final at the Rothesay International at Devonshire Park in Eastbourne, sending Aleksandra Krunic & Magda Linette into the final.
You know what, I'm literally taking it one day at a time. I really took my time with my hamstring injury, so I'm just not making a ton of decisions after this. Serena Williams
The WTA event saw 40-year old Williams play her first two competitive matches since she limped out of the first round after just 7 games at last year’s Wimbledon in tears with a hamstring problem.
The American and Tunisian scratch partnership made it through to the semi-finals with a narrow last 16 win over Maria Bouzkova & Sara Sorribes Tormo, 2-6 6-3 [13-11], before a more convincing quarter-final victory in straight sets against Shuko Aoyama & Chan Hao-ching, 6-2 6-4.
Williams will now focus on Wimbledon, where she has accepted a wild card into the women’s singles in a bid to win a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title, and she will find out who she faces in the first round when the draw is made on Friday.
In their Eastbourne opener, Williams & Jabeur were down by a set before coming back to win the match tiebreak.
“For me, it felt really good,” Jabeur said after the match.
It was Williams’ first doubles match since she and now-retired Caroline Wozniacki made it to the Auckland doubles final in January of 2020.
“It was so fun to play with Ons,” Williams said on court, after the win. “It was great, we had a lot of fun, and our opponents played amazing! We were just trying to stay in there after the first set.”
“It was so much fun,” Jabeur added. “I was a little bit nervous before, playing with such a legend, but she made me really good on the court, and even when I made mistakes, she’d keep encouraging me.”
They were even better in the next match, which was a more routine affair, although after not facing a single break point in the first set, Williams & Jabeur faced break points in each of their first 4 service games in the second.
After saving a total of 9 break points, Williams & Jabeur claimed the first break to open a 5-4 lead and, in the 10th game, they converted their first match point to complete a straight-set win.
“We played much better [than in the opening round],” Jabeur said. “I think we are getting used to each other now. I am ready for more tournaments, to be honest with you.”
“Me too!” Williams responded. “I have had some really good training leading up to Wimbledon, and up to this tournament, and really hitting the ball well, and just working out, and it’s been working.
“It’s just been connecting. I feel like I have been serving well, so that’s been really good. Working really hard on that.”
So, can the World No 1,204 really win Wimbledon?
Without a competitive singles match in 12 months, it is a big ask but clearly Williams is sweeping into Wimbledon targeting what would be her greatest triumph.
The 7-time champion at the All England Club is still chasing down a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title, but the odds have rarely been so stacked against the American, who would dearly love to prove everyone wrong.
With her 41st birthday just 3 months away, Williams has not played a singles match on tour since limping off the Centre Court against Aliaksandra Sasnovich in 2021.
“I hope I don’t become the last player to have beaten her at Wimbledon,” Sasnovich told AFP at the French Open last month. “She is a great champion and I want to see her back.”
Sasnovich will not be at Wimbledon because of the Club’s ban on Russian and Belarusian players, but she will relish the return of Williams.
Stalled on 23 Grand Slam singles titles since winning a 7th Australian Open in 2017 while pregnant, Williams since has been the runner-up at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2018 and 2019, leaving Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 majors out of reach.
“Did I ever doubt I would return?” Williams reflected to media this week at Eastbourne. “Absolutely, for sure.
“I would be dishonest if I said it wasn’t, and now my body feels great.
“It felt good, but I always try to stay semi-fit because you never know when you are going to play Wimbledon.”
Williams remains the last woman to successfully defend a Wimbledon title in 2016, and when she played her first Championships in 1998, the current World No 1 Iga Swiatek was still 3 years away from being born.
The 21-year-old Pole arrives in London with a second French Open title secured, and on a 35-match win streak, but with no grass court match play under her belt.
She has equalled Venus Williams’ 35 straight victories in 2000 for the longest winning run by a woman in the 21st century, and exceeded Serena’s mark of 34.
“Having that 35th win and, kind of, doing something more than Serena did, it’s something special,” said Swiatek.
Wimbledon will test her ability to keep the run going, where last year’s 4th-round was her best showing, although she was the junior Wimbledon champion in 2018.
“Grass is always tricky,” she admits. “I actually like the part that I have no expectations there. It’s something kind of refreshing.”
Her coach, Tomasz Wiktorowski acknowledges that his charge needs to make a few changes to her game for grass, but is confident the 21-year old can do well on the surface.
“The key is a different bounce of the ball from the surface, much lower on grass,” Wiktorowski told Rzeczpospolita. “Navigating the court is different too, but that’s not what I’m worried about at all.
“Iga will have to use slightly different directions when hitting the ball, as well as in the serve, in the context of the balance between the slice service and the kick service.
“She has the best kick-serve in the world, but it doesn’t always work on grass. So if we lose here, we have to add something else.
“But one thing is beyond doubt: Iga can play on the grass, because she has reached the fourth round of Wimbledon.
“We will only try to make small modifications that should make her life easier on this surface. Iga has enough strengths to also win on grass.”
Swiatek will headline Wimbledon as the No 1 seed, while Anett Kontaveit and Ons Jabeur are the 2nd and 3rd seeds, with defending champion Ash Barty having retired earlier this year, and Naomi Osaka opting out to nurse her achilles.
Other absentees because of the ongoing war in Ukraine include World No 6 Aryna Sabalenka, Daria Kasatkina, Victoria Azarenka, Veronika Kudermetova, and Ekaterina Alexandrova, all currently ranked players inside the top 30.
Swiatek is the clear favourite, and Jabeur could be her biggest challenger, holding the second-most victories this season and having reached the last-eight in 2021, while Paula Badosa, like the Pole, has yet to progress beyond the 4th-round, and 2nd-ranked Anett Kontaveit and World No 5 Maria Sakkari have still to get past the last 32.
No-one in the draw, however, will want to see Williams’ name lining up against them, the dark horse of the Championships.
“You know what, I’m literally taking it one day at a time,” Williams says coyly. “I really took my time with my hamstring injury, so I’m just not making a ton of decisions after this.”
In April, when her long-time coach Patrick Mouratoglou started working with former World No 1 Simona Halep, after Williams had not played competitively for 9 months and there was little evidence that she had even been practising.
Speculation about the American’s future surfaced at the 2021 Australian Open, where she said: “If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone.”
“I think it surprised everyone,” Badosa, the World No 4, said on learning of her return. “It’s very good to have her back, and it really amazed me how she had all this hunger for the game, and still has it.
“I think it is a great inspiration. I hope she can be back for much more time.”
Doting on her daughter, Olympia, takes up much of Williams’ time these days, but she has also been busy working on her business interests outside tennis, launching a clothing line named ‘Serena’ earlier this year, while another part of her fashion portfolio is a jewellery brand.
Williams is among several high-profile backers of Angel City FC, an American women’s football club which also boasts Billie Jean King, actresses Natalie Portman, Eva Longoria and Jennifer Garner among its investors.
Earlier this year, she raised $111m to launch a venture capital fund, Serena Ventures, which invests in entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds.
Asked if she could see herself playing into next year, she said: “I don’t know, I can’t answer that. But I love tennis, and I love playing, or else I wouldn’t be out here, right?
“But I also love what I do off the court, what I’ve built with Serena Ventures, it’s interesting. So, it’s a lot.”
As attention turns to Wimbledon, speculation over who will open Centre Court in the absence of defending champion Barty grows.
The Australian former World No 1 beat Karolina Pliskova to win her first Wimbledon title last year, after she had opened the tournament on Centre Court but said she wished it had been 2019 champion Halep, who was injured and unable to do so herself.
“With all my heart I wish Simo was here to do it [start on Centre Court] herself,” she told the BBC last year. “She’s a champion. She’s earned the right to open this court.
“To be given the honour, when I haven’t fully deserved it, I wanted to come out here and pay respect to that.”
The Grand Slam was cancelled in 2020 due to Covid-19, so Halep could not open that year, and now that Barty has retired and Halep is fit and playing again, the Australian’s former coach, Craig Tyzzer, revealed she has asked Wimbledon organisers to make it happen this year.
Replying to a tweet from the Tennis Podcast, tennis analyst and Halep’s former coach Darren Cahill wrote: “This should be Simona Halep. Covid wiped out the 2020 championships & unable to play last year due to injury so Ash Barty was given the honour. With Ash retired, the privilege and honour should go back to Simo. She has earned it as 2019 champ.”
Tyzzer responded: “Totally agree Killer and I think someone may have already requested it,” followed by a winking face emoji.
Cahill wrote: “That would be awesome. Quite typical of that someone.”