Dressed all in black (with glitter-accessorized Nikes), Serena Williams returned to the court Saturday in Abu Dhabi.
It was an exhibition against reigning French Open champ Jelena Ostapenko, arranged late as a huge value-added feature to an event beleaguered by high-profile withdrawals.
While Williams bowed, 6-2, 3-6, 10-5 in the match tiebreak to her 20-year-old rival. But the victory was in being there less than four months after giving birth to daughter Alexis Olympia.
“First matches back are always super incredibly hard, especially after having a baby, but it was great. I’m glad I could do it here,” she said in a post-match interview.
Slow but steady in return
Williams was tentative at first, not fully testing her post-baby core muscles by ratcheting up her powerful serve. Her movement also was tentative. But by the second set, she had already picked it up.
And she was, as the Williams sisters love to say, “seeeeerious” about the enterprise.
But she was smiling, too. And rueful when she missed what, in full form, would be a routine shot.
Mostly, she looked happy being out there, doing what she does best (at least off the court).
“It was definitely a new experience. It played out pretty well. In the middle of the match I looked over and I was like ‘is Olympia okay?’ Because usually I’m always with her,” Williams told Sport360 and the other media in Abu Dhabi.
“So I don’t know how I’m going to be able to manage that, but maybe I’ll just always look over in the middle of a Grand Slam and be like ‘is Olympia okay?’ But when she gets older she’ll be able to actually come out to the matches.”
Is Melbourne the next stop?
Will Williams travel to Melbourne for the start of the Australian Open, which begins in just over two weeks was?
It’s hard to know whether her performance against Ostapenko was any kind of a determining factor. Just getting on court against a much younger rival, after such a long layoff, was a risky proposition.
She could have, in theory, gotten crushed. You wouldn’t expect that to happen, just because she’s so good. But there was no way for her to know ahead of time how her body would respond. It’s all new territory.
“I don’t know. I’m going to go and just assess what I want, and what I want to do and figure that out,” she said. “I’m taking it one day at a time. I’m going to assess everything with Patrick (coach Mouratoglou) and my team and go from there.”
The voracious competitor in Williams might have had its fuse lit by the match conditions and the big crowd. But everything has changed for the new mother now.
But it seems clear she intends to return and fight to add more to her historic career. The only question is when, precisely, that will happen.