Serena Williams will return to competitive tennis at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells (March 5-March 18, 2018). Following a 14-month hiatus and the birth of her daughter in September 2017, Williams is making her much anticipated comeback. Ironically, this comeback will take place at the tournament she had boycotted for 14 years, up until 2015. Back in 2001, Venus and Serena faced great controversy, sparked when Venus withdrew from her semifinal match against her sister. That’s all water under the bridge now, but the incident only adds to the drama and excitement.
The Indian Wells Tennis Garden is in California, just a couple of hours away from Serena’s base in LA. Overall, an ideal scenario for the return of this great champion to top level tennis. Roger Federer has proven that age is just a number – although Roger didn’t give birth to any of his 4 children. Let alone the complications Serena had at the end of her pregnancy. Returning from a maternity hiatus isn’t the only challenge Serena Williams will have to face though.It is the current landscape in women’s tennis that seems to be the “wildcard” this time.
A lot has happened since Serena’s last WTA tournament, in January 2017. 5 players have reached the WTA top spot. 4 different players have won a Grand Slam, two of which weren’t even in the top 10 at the time. But most importantly, female tennis players have regained the belief that they can actually win tournaments and get to the top, if they perform well enough. That is something Serena’s dominance had taken away from the sport. Something that the WTA players won’t give up easily now.
The WTA old guard learned to live without Serena Williams
It is no coincidence that players like Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki, Angelique Kerber and Garbine Muguruza shined in Serena’s absence. These players were used to chasing after Williams for years, gradually improving their game, but never really hitting the nail on the head. I’m not saying that they wouldn’t have enjoyed great streaks or won Grand Slams otherwise. But it is incredibly difficult to tweak your mindset from being the underdog in almost every tournament, to being a favorite or defending the top spot. Being able to do that develops your abilities and mental toughness a completely different way. It will take Serena Williams a while before she steps into a tournament as the undisputed favorite. In the meantime, those who have now tasted sweet success after years of hit and miss, are not likely to give it up.
The new blood has come out swinging
Aside from the seasoned players, several others have experienced significant career breakthroughs, in Serena’s absence. Jelena Ostapenko and Sloane Stephens won a Grand Slam each. Elina Svitolina, Karolina Pliskova and Caroline Garcia established themselves in the WTA top 10. While players like Johanna Konta, CoCo Vandeweghe, Naomi Osaka and Kristina Mladenovic got a peek of what it’s like to be high in the rankings. What is common with most of these breakthroughs is the aggression and fearlessness these players show on court. Serena Williams undoubtedly commands incredible respect, however the new blood of the WTA field seems to have the right combination of courage and talent, to continue causing some damage.
Can Serena Williams get back to winning titles this early?
This year’s Open at Indian Wells is probably one of the most ambiguous WTA tournaments of the recent years. Halep, Wozniacki and Kerber have made an impressive start to the 2018 tennis season. With Victoria Azarenka also back in action, Petra Kvitova finding her form, Belinda Bencic rejoining the elite and Maria Sharapova getting to her old level, the competition is fierce. Serena’s priority at this stage is probably to get some official matches under her belt, before the second Grand Slam of the season. A champion of her calibre would rarely participate in a tournament she doesn’t feel she can win. Regardless of what happens at Indian Wells though, one thing is certain. Breaking Margaret Court’s 24 Grand Slam record is a motivation great enough for Serena Williams, to be 100% ready by June and be the favorite for the title in Wimbledon 2018.