Serena Williams took the court for the first time in nearly a year at the Mubadala World Tennis Championships in Abu Dhabi, taking a 6-2, 3-6, 10-5 loss to Roland Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko in an exhibition match. The match came just four months after Serena gave birth to her daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian, and a little over two weeks ahead of the Australian Open, which begins on January 15th.
What can we glean from Serena's performance in Abu Dhabi?
It was an encouraging first outing for Serena.
Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley has been publicly bullish about the possibility of Serena playing the Australian Open, which begins in two weeks, but Serena's late decision to play the Abu Dhabi exhibition was the first signal that the 23-time major champion might actually be ready to return to competition in January. It has been difficult to gauge Serena's readiness via typical means. While most players spent the pre-season posting photos and videos of gym workouts and grueling practice points, Serena has been relatively quiet about her tennis on social media. "Is she really ready to compete, not just at a tour-level event, but at a Slam just four months after giving birth?"
Based on her performance in Abu Dhabi against Ostapenko, the answer is a resounding..."Maybe?"
This was Serena's first public match since she won the Australian Open last year to break Stefanie Graf's Open Era record for most major singles titles. The rust certainly showed early in the match, as Serena's trademark explosion off the ground and through the ball had been replaced by measured hitting and controlled spin. To be clear, this was an exhibition match, and translating Serena's form in an exhibition to her prospects in competitive tour-level events has historically been a fool's errand. Serena can look scratchy in exhibitions, only to turn around and play a string of flawless matches a week later.
The two key elements of her game that needed to look good on Saturday were her serve and movement, and though she started slow, they certainly showed signs of improvement as the match progressed, though neither looked close to their Slam-winning peaks. When Ostapenko kept the rallies up the center of the court, Serena's footwork around the ball was methodical but good, and the American held her own in the rallies. When Ostapenko broke open the rallies by going into the corners, she quickly got the upper hand, as she exposed Serena's movement and recovery out wide. How much of that was due to Serena's own caution and nerves - both understandable given the circumstances - and how much was due to rust or needing significantly more time on the practice court, only Serena knows.
"I don’t know," Serena told reporters after the match when asked if she will play the Australian Open. "I’m going to go and just assess what I want, and what I want to do and figure that out."
"I’m taking it one day at a time. I’m going to assess everything with Patrick (Mouratoglou) and my team and go from there."
Serena can play herself into form.
If there's anyone on tour who has proven time and again that she can play herself into form over the course of a Slam, it's Serena. From her astounding 2007 Australian Open title, which she saw her arrive to Melbourne ranked No.81 and proceed to roar to the title, to her last two Australian Open titles in 2015 and 2017, which questions surrounded her health and form before the tournament, only for Serena to be the one left standing at the end.
In 2015, Serena played the Hopman Cup as her lead-up event and famously ordered and espresso on a changeover against Flavia Pennetta and lost to Eugenie Bouchard and Agnieszka Radwanska. She went on to lose two sets en route to the Australian Open title. Earlier this year, Serena hit 88 unforced errors to lose to Madison Brengle at the ASB Classic. She won all 14 sets she played in Melbourne to win her record-breaking title.
The question for Serena is whether she feels she has had enough repetition on the practice court to at least lay a good base upon which she can build quickly in Melbourne.
Serena will head to Melbourne if she believes she can win it.
At this stage in her life and career, it's doubtful that Serena would play the Australian Open unless she felt she could win it. She has nothing to prove to anyone and she has too much pride as a competitor to just show up in hopes of winning a handful of matches. She's there for seven wins, no losses. No exhibition match or lead-up tournament in the world can tell us what Serena believes she can do in Melbourne.
"I don’t know if I’m totally ready yet or not (to get back to the tour). When I come back, I definitely want to be competing for championships. Somebody asked me the other day when I started and I couldn’t remember, and I still can’t remember. I guess it’s kind of all a blur," Serena said.
"When you have the baby and you’re training, and then you go back to the baby, it’s been a while. I don’t know. But I definitely look forward to getting back out there."
Oh to be a fly on the wall when she gathers her team to discuss the next steps.