Serena Williams is coming back to tennis in 2018, and announced on Christmas Eve her return would be in an exhibition match at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi against French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko later this week.
That effectively erased any doubts that the tennis great would be defending her n Open title, starting in less than three weeks.
Williams didn’t drop a set en route to winning the 2017 n Open. Her 23rd grand slam title saw her regain the world No.1 ranking and left observers with little doubt about her standing as one of the greats of the game.
What was not known at the time, however, was that Williams, then aged 35, won her seventh n Open and regained top billing in the game while in the early stages of pregnancy with her first child.
Her straight sets triumph over elder sister Venus Williams in January ended up being Williams’ last match before a hiatus. She gave birth to Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. in September.
“I am delighted to be returning to the court in Abu Dhabi for the first time since the birth of my daughter in September,” Williams told the UAE tournament’s official website.
“The Mubadala World Tennis Championship has long marked the beginning of the men’s global tennis season and I am excited and honoured to be making my comeback as part of the first women to participate in the event.”
Unsurprisingly, Williams’ ranking has dropped during her time away, and for a player who left at the top of the game, her scenario begs the question about what seeding she deserves to be allocated at Melbourne Park.
The WTA has a “special ranking rule’ which allows players sidelined with a long-term injury the chance to return to competition and take advantage of their ranking at the start of their absence. Players can use the rule to gain entry into eight tournaments within 12 months, including two grand slams. The rule also caters for players and pregnancy. It does not, however, make a ruling about seedings for tournaments, which ultimately are at the discretion of officials.
Williams’ world ranking is hovering in the low 20s so a seeding is coming her way regardless. n Open officials could still use their discretion to “elevate” Williams up the list. But they are keeping their cards close to their chest.
“We all saw what Serena did back in 2007 when she started her year at the Hobart International and went on to win the n Open ranked No.81 in the world,” said tournament director Craig Tiley.
“Roger [Federer] returned this year, after almost six months out of the game, seeded outside the top 16 and lifted the trophy.
“Serena is a truly remarkable athlete and it will be incredible to see her return to the court regardless of seeding.”
The point about Federer is interesting as it was announced late this year that the grand slam tournaments intend to revert to top 16 seeds in 2019. Williams is the current world No.22 so, under that scenario, she would have needed significant discretion from officials had her return happened one year from now.
Williams’ return to tennis in motherhood and chase of Margaret Court’s mark of 24 grand slam titles is bound to be one of the most captivating storylines in sport next year. Another big title in the first half of 2018 might be asking too much, but don’t expect her ranking to stay in the 20s for long, even though she’ll be defending her Melbourne points.
Perhaps the last word belongs to the player herself who this month posted a photo on Instagram of a pair of dazzling gold and white tennis shoes with a none-too-subtle caption about the imminent return: “Be excited. Be very excited …”