Long before the challenges of professional tennis revealed mental health as a leading issue, Serena Williams understood the value of taking the occasional sabbatical.
“There’s oftentimes that I think subconsciously I’d take breaks,” she said in her pre-tournament press conference at Wimbledon. “I never played as much as the next player throughout my whole career. I think that was all subconscious, me taking care of myself and knowing how to take care of myself.
“I wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t go through and get through what I got through.”
On Tuesday, the 40-year-old Williams plays Harmony Tan in a first-round match, her first singles appearance in one day short of a year. It’s the third scheduled match on Centre Court. As always, the 23-time Grand Slam champion will command our undivided attention. She’s coming off the fourth major break of her career – and, previously at least, great things have always followed.
- In 2003, knee surgery led to an eight-month break. She ended a 0-for-5 run without a title at the majors with a win at Wimbledon in 2005.
- Ankle and knee injuries in 2005 and 2006 were behind bouts of depression and a year-end ranking of No.95. But after undergoing therapy and taking six months off, Serena captured the 2007 Australian Open.
- An accident in a Munich restaurant in 2010 and the resulting hematoma and pulmonary embolism forced her to miss nearly one year. After failing to win a title in seven consecutive majors, Serena emerged triumphant at the 2012 US Open.
- Already pregnant with daughter Olympia, she won the 2017 Australian Open. She returned following life-threatening birth complications some 13 months later and, in the quest of her all-time record equaling 24th Grand Slam title, reached four major finals.
The last time we saw her in a singles match, Serena was limping off the court at the All England Club following a first-round retirement to Aliaksandra Sasnovich. A hamstring injury took her out of the US Open and her ranking has fallen to No.1204.
“I didn’t retire,” she explained to reporters. “I just needed to heal physically, mentally. I had no plans, to be honest. I just didn’t know when I would come back. Obviously Wimbledon is such a great place to be, and it just kind of worked out.”
There was a doubles warmup last week at Eastbourne with Ons Jabeur. They won two matches and reached the semifinals before Jabeur withdrew with a knee injury.
“It was good,” Serena said. “I felt more prepared than I thought I would like a month or two months or three months ago. Way, way more. So it was kind of surprising, but also it’s just a fun time, just to be out there and to enjoy it.”
She’s always embraced her time off the court and it has helped to sustain her career. Now, it seems, tennis is the part-time indulgence that rejuvenates the rest of her life. In the past year – not unlike Roger Federer, who finds himself at a similar age and stage – Serena has clearly enjoyed being Serena: Motherhood, the Met Gala, an Oscar nomination for “King Richard,” a movie she helped produce.
“It’s been totally different, honestly,” she said. “A part of me feels like that is a little bit more of my life now than tournaments.”
So what to expect? How to balance the weight of her career accomplishments versus current form?
Serena’s 23 Grand Slam singles titles are seven more than the combined total of the field’s 10 other major champions. She’s a seven-time Wimbledon champion, two more titles than the total for Petra Kvitova (2011, 2014), Garbine Muguruza (2017), Angelique Kerber (2018) and Simona Halep (2019).
On the other hand, Serena is nearly four years older than Kaia Kanepi, the next oldest player in the field. Of course she’ll be rusty, but she has a history of playing her way into the Grand Slams. But can she get that process started?
Tan, a 24-year-old from France, recently won three matches on the grass at the WTA 125 in Gaiba, Italy. But this is her first main draw at Wimbledon and she’s never played Serena, who has the best first-round record at majors – 77-2, .975 – among active players. Of course, one of those losses came last year to Sasnovich.
What would Serena consider a good outcome in her fifth major comeback?
“You know the answer to that. Come on, now,” she chided the reporter who asked the question. “I have high goals. We’ll see. I’m not going to answer that.”
Ah, but this match against Tan will provide the first clues.
No.1 Iga Swiatek vs. Jana Fett
To say the 21-year-old from Poland has dominated the Hologic WTA Tour in 2022 would be something approaching disingenuous. So far has Swiatek has distanced herself from the field that her rankings lead over No.2 Ons Jabeur is more than the gap between Jabeur and No.464 Erika Sema of Japan.
Swiatek has won a ludicrous 35 straight matches – but none of them have come on grass. Which begs the question: Will her spotless run of the past four months – 19 victories on hardcourts, 16 on clay – translate to grass?
“That’s a hard question,” Swiatek told reporters. “Honestly I still feel like I need to figure out grass. Last year for sure, it was that kind of tournament where I didn’t know what to expect. Then match by match I realized maybe I can do more and more.”
Wimbledon ended in the round of 16 for Swiatek when she lost 12 of 14 games in the last two sets to Jabeur. This year she took a full week off after winning her second title at Roland Garros and has been practicing on grass for nearly two weeks. The 2018 junior champion tried to downplay her chances, but is the overwhelming favorite of the odds makers. She and Croatian qualifier Fett have never played.
“I don’t have to kind of show everybody that I need to play well on every tournament because its tennis, we have ups and downs,” she said. “So I try to play without expectations and just see what this tournament brings me.”
No.16 Simona Halep versus Karolina Muchova
Halep has responded well after suffering a panic attack in a second-round loss to Zheng Qinwen at Roland Garros. She won six of seven matches on grass before granting a semifinal walkover to Bianca Andreescu (neck injury) in the semifinals at Bad Homburg.
The 2019 Wimbledon champion said the neck injury is behind her, but Muchova – who has an 8-6 career record on grass – a tough first-round draw. They’ve never met.
“Now I have a connection with the court because in 2019 I played really well,” Halep said. “So I have great memories.”
Other notable matches:
- No.4 Paula Badosa vs. qualifier Louisa Chirico
- No.6 Karolina Pliskova vs. Tereza Martincova
- No.8 Jessica Pegula vs. Donna Vekic
- No.9 Garbine Muguruza vs. Greet Minnen
- No.11 Coco Gauff vs. Elena-Gabriela Ruse