Serena Williams is set to return to the Hologic WTA Tour this week at the Rothesay International Eastbourne, where she will play doubles alongside Ons Jabeur. The tournament will be Williams' first in nearly 12 months. Her last match came at Wimbledon nearly a year ago, where she was forced to retire with an injury in the first round against Aliaksandra Sasnovich.
"I think it surprised everyone," top seed Paula Badosa said at Media Day in Eastbourne. "But 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, because I think she does very good for tennis."
In addition to playing doubles in Eastbourne, Williams also has taken a singles wild card into Wimbledon, which begins next week. The Wimbledon draw will be conducted Friday. With unseeded Williams in the mix, the players will be keeping a close eye on who she draws in the first round.
"I hope she [draws] Iga," Jabeur told reporters at Media Day in Eastbourne. "At least someone should stop Iga a little bit."
Badosa has no preference on who Williams should draw. She's just hoping it's not her.
"Of course I don't want to play against her," Badosa said. "I hope the draw goes for another player, because of course no one wants to play against Serena and less on grass. So let's pray for that."
First things first. Players, fans and pundits will get their first look at Williams on the doubles court. Playing with Jabeur in Eastbourne will give Williams a good opportunity to find her footing on the grass and practice her serve and returns in match conditions.
"It’s a long time not to play," 2021 Wimbledon finalist Karolina Pliskova said. The 30-year-old Czech has been working her way back to form after breaking her arm in the off-season. Given her own experience, Pliskova warned reporters to temper expectations.
"She’s not the youngest, and the body takes time to get back in the shape of playing matches and tournaments," Pliskova said. "It’s still very different to just practicing."
"But of course she’s an amazing player and she has achieved so much. I think a number of players will be super scared to play her. This is her advantage, but let's see her level."
For Maria Sakkari, who comes into Eastbourne off a strong semifinal run in Berlin, Williams' return brings some welcome intrigue.
"I grew up watching Serena and Venus because my grandma is a tennis freak," Sakkari said. "I just feel like it's very good for tennis that she is back and I think that it brought a little bit more suspense.
"I'm sure that everyone wants to avoid her, especially if she wins a few matches. She will start feeling good about her game and she is Serena Williams. She is the greatest female athlete of all time."
As for Jabeur, she's been walking around the grounds with her head a little higher after both winning Berlin and getting the tap on the shoulder from the 23-time major champion.
"Many players were jealous because I'm playing with her," Jabeur said. "Honestly, Serena is Serena. She is a legend and always will be. And the fact that she returned and I get to be part of her journey, it's really unbelievable. She did a lot for our sport and I really respect her, respect her story, respect everything that she's been through. I hope I can learn even 2% from it.
"Now I'm joking with other doubles players, I was like, 'If you have less than 20 Grand Slams, don't even ask me to play doubles with you anymore.'"