Inside Serena's Announcement: What It Means For Williams, The WTA
Published April 20, 2017 12:15
Serena Williams announced via a spokesperson on Wednesday that she is pregnant and expecting her first child in the fall. The surprise announcement, which initially came by way of a subsequently deleted SnapChat photo bearing the caption, "20 Weeks", was accompanied by a reassurance that Serena hopes to return to the tour in 2018.
Four thoughts on the big news:
Serenity suits Serena.
After six years of re-establishing herself as the dominant force on tour following a foot injury and subsequent pulmonary embolism in 2011, it was a markedly serene Serena who started the 2017 season. She arrived at the Australian Open newly-engaged to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, and she played a top-notch tournament to snag the one record she seemed to almost want too much last season, eclipsing Stefanie Graf's Open Era record by winning her 23rd major singles title at the Australian Open.
What struck me about Serena during that fortnight was her relaxed attitude and approach to the tournament. For years, as she fought to get back No.1, chased Slam No.18, as well as the Calendar Grand Slam in 2015, Serena played under a level of pressure that was palpable. As she often reminded reporters, it's headline news when she loses, and non-news when she wins, regardless of how difficult the feats and milestones were to achieve. Her body language and reactions after tough losses betrayed her constant refrain that she did not feel pressure and that she had nothing to lose.
That defensive veneer was barely visible this year in Melbourne. She took care of business on court - she did not lose a set - and then took selfies with journalists in her press conference. She was authentically good-humored throughout the two weeks, and not even the prospect of having to beat her older sister Venus in the final to break Graf's record swayed her.
The serenity was evident then and it continues now. Follow her on social media and Serena is having the time of her life, enjoying her time away from the grind of the tour, having accomplished everything she could have possibly wanted on tour. Now comes the incredible personal journey that she had talked about often throughout the years. There are more exciting chapters to be written in the epic tome of Serena's life and career, which remains to this day, a page-turner.
Margaret Court's record of 24 major singles titles is still under threat.
Let's be clear: Serena has nothing to prove when it comes to her illustrious career, which has spanned over 20 years. But the idea of catching Court's overall record was certainly tantalizing for Serena, who is just one major title short of tying the Australian great. The last time we saw Serena on a tennis court she was capping off one of her most dominant runs to a major title.
The biggest question surrounding Serena now is whether we'll actually see her back on court again. Serena's spokesperson confirmed that Serena is planning to return, but that has not quelled the speculation. On Tennis Channel, Lindsay Davenport, Tracy Austin, and Mary Carillo all expressed their doubts as to Serena would be as motivated to come back, especially given how much she has already accomplished in her career. Is chasing Court really worth it?
But as we've seen in recent times on tour, motherhood is not the formidable hurdle it once was. After retiring at 23-years-old in favor of family life, the Belgian returned to thee tour two years later and proceeded to win three major titles, capturing the 2009 and 2010 US Open and the 2011 Australian Open. If anything, motherhood and the time spent away from the sport freed Clijsters up and her tennis flowed easily. Before retiring she won just one major. She eventually finished her career with four.
It's doubtful that Serena will have much spare time over the next 12 months - there's also that wedding to plan - but it would surprise no one if Serena continued to keep an eye on Victoria Azarenka's progress as well. The former No.1 is set to make her return from maternity leave this summer at the Bank of the West Classic.
The impact of Serena's absence on the tour level remains to be seen.
Over the next few weeks and months, you can expect to see many players weigh in on the impact of Serena's absence on tour. They will weigh in because they are being asked to in interviews and press conferences, but these questions are not new. The reality is the players have grown accustomed to seeing Serena only at the Slams. That has been a noticeable development since the start of the 2016 season.
Whether due to injury or active scheduling adjustments, Serena's schedule has grown leaner over the last 16 months. In 2014 she played 16 events. In 2015 that number was cut to 11 events. Last year, including the Olympics, she played 8 events. This year, just two in January.
All that is to say, the impact of Serena's absence will not be felt on a weekly basis on tour. As Simona Halep joked after Serena withdrew from the BNP Paribas Open and Miami Open this spring, "She will probably come back at the French Open. And she will win it." This has been the reality for the lockeroom for quite some time. Serena's announcement does not necessarily change that dynamic.
Serena's absence will be felt most at the Slams.
While things remain unchanged on the tour level, Slams will certainly feel different without her marquee name in the draw at the Slams. How do you replace the woman whose is widely considered the greatest of all time, and who has served as the standard bearer of women's tennis for all these years? You can't. It's a waste of time to even try.
But when it comes to the idea that the Serena's leave has swung the doors wide open for the rest of the field to take advantage at the Slams, it's important to look the recent Slam season for guidance. Angelique Kerber won two majors in 2016, beating Serena to win her maiden Australian Open. Garbiñe Muguruza won her maiden title by beating Serena at the French Open. Karolina Pliskova made her first Slam final at the US Open, and she too beat Serena en route. In other words, Serena's presence in the draw didn't stop these talented women from posting career-best results.
Of course, Serena's absence could open the door for a small cadre of specific players - Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka immediately come to mind - who Serena consistently upended in major finals. If they find themselves in that position again and don't have to see Serena across the net, you have to like their chances.
Hear more about what Serena's announcement means for the 23-time Grand Slam champion and the tour on which she competed in the latest episode of the WTA Insider Podcast:
Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn or on any podcast app of your choice to ensure you never miss an episode when they go live. Reviews are always helpful, so if you like what you've heard so far, leave us one. You can also get new episode alerts by following us on Twitter @WTA_Insider.
All photos courtesy of Getty Images.