September 25, 2020

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Serena Williams swaps lockdown locations in WTA return

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A sigh of relief for Serena Williams at the US Open last year, after beating Elina Svitolina. (Stephanie Myles/Opencourt.ca)

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Serena Williams has been “super, super careful” since the coronavirus pandemic shut down tennis back in March.

And now that she is returning to the Tour at the relocated WTA tournament in Nicholasville, Kentucky next week, it’s sort of like isolating all over again – except in a different location.

“I’m super, super careful with what I’ve been doing. And everyone in the Serena bubble is really protected. Because At the end of the day, yeah, it’s cool to play tennis. But it’s my life and this is my health. I’ve been a little neurotic to an extent. But that’s just what I have to be right now,” Williams said on a Zoom conference call Saturday, ahead of the inaugural Top Seed Open.

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Tech queen Serena Williams adjusts her Zoom setting before a pre-tournament virtual press conference in Kentucky Saturday.

The 38-year-old American has had an eventful and well-chronicled time of it on the health side during her career. Notable among her issues is a blood-clotting problem that led her to suffer a pulmonary embolism both back in 2011, and after the birth of her daughter Olympic nearly three years ago.

On top of that, her native Florida has turned out to be one of the epicentres of the COVID-19 virus in recent months.

“Florida is a really bad place to be. So we were kind of extreme with our social distancing. It was a completely different experience,” she said.

Anti-coagulants (which Williams stopped taking when she had her Caesarian section, leading to some of the near-deadly consequences) can affect the immune system. As well, permanent lung damage is one of the few known potential long-term issues of contracting the coronavirus. So extreme care wasn’t optional.

“I’ve been a little bit of a recluse. I started self-distancing in early March, or something. But I don’t have full lung capacity, so I’m not sure what would happen to me, I’m sure I’ll be okay, but I don’t want to find out, kind of thing,” she said. “I have, like 50 masks I travel with. I don’t want to be without one.”

Rare stretch at home for Serena

Beyond the health precautions, Williams welcomed her long stretch at home.

“Every part of me loved it. Because I haven’t been home that long literally since I was a teenager. Even when I was pregnant I was travelling a lot, I went to so many different places. It’s been a long time since I’ve been home that long. And it was nice,” she said.

The need for distance meant Williams wasn’t able to go to the gym. “That was different. but I’m also not bench-pressing. This is God given, thanks very much, from my mom,” she said, laughing and flexing a bicep.

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Serena Williams on the practice court at the US Open last year, where she reached the final. (Stephanie Myles/Opencourt.ca)

So she and husband Alexis Ohanian built their own. It’s been a slow process. And it’s not done yet. But as Williams pointed out, this is the new normal. She doesn’t know when she’ll ever go to a public gym again, because she doesn’t want to risk it. So it’s a long-term deal.

The tennis court Ohanian had built, complete with the new US Open Laykold surface, was a short drive away and made Williams feel as though she at least was going somewhere. Real distance, rather than just social distance.

“It’s my own sanctuary. I’m, like, ‘Why didn’t I do this 20 years ago?’ We had a few players out there. This is the US Open surface, so come hit with me. I just tried to get people to come,” she said.

And, given that tennis is a naturally social-distanced sport, there were few challenges. She’d arrive, go to her side of the court. Her hitter would arrive, and go to his side.

1-800-FindAPhysio

The only challenge, Williams said, was that her physios were in Europe, and obviously unable to travel to Florida. So she had to figure out an alternative.

“I had to figure out a way to find a new someone that could work with me in Florida, that was in the bubble, that I could trust. That was interesting because, what do you do? You’re training every day, because you have nothing else to do at home. I also need some physical work,” she said. “That was a new curve I had to deal with But that’s it.”

The draw gods not kind

With everyone off the competitive courts for so long, Williams expects everyone to return to action very fit, with all that free time to focus on it.

But fitness, and match fitness, are two different things. And while Williams has experience dealing with a long break because of injury, or maternity, this is unexplored territory for everyone.

And while she has to catch up with herself, she won’t have to catch up with everyone else. Because everyone else will be in the same boat.

But the Top Seed Open draw gods were not kind to Serena or her sister Venus. Or to their friend Victoria Azarenka.

Only one of them can reach the quarterfinals; Azarenka and Venus meet in the first round, with the winner to face Serena. And the winner of that could potentially face 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens there.

Top heavy with Americans

In fact, all of the notable Americans in this unusually high-calibre International-level draw are in the top half. The only one in the bottom half is 16-year-old Coco Gauff, and she could meet No. 2 seed (and the only other top-10 player besides Serena) Aryna Sabalenka in the second round.

The American leg of the WTA Tour begins with a definite bang, not a whimper.

After that? Williams plans to play – if tournaments are played. That includes the French Open.

“I see myself doing it all – if it happens,” she said. “I learned that as tournaments got cancelled, like this, every tournament getting cancelled, ‘All right, let me just work on today and focus on today and see what happens.”

That includes even thinking about the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics, postponed from this summer because of the pandemic.

If there is anything Williams might have known about life that was reinforced by the pandemic is that “one day at a time” is the best play.