Serena Williams returns a shot during the Tie Break Tens at Madison Square Garden on Monday. She is slated to play this week at Indian Wells. Photo: Elsa/Getty Images
After she delivered her daughter, Alexis Olympia, last September, Serena Williams was barely recognizable as one of the finest and toughest athletes.
After giving birth, Williams developed blood clots in her lungs that could have been deadly if she had not sensed something was wrong and insisted on an examination that discovered them. After several surgeries she spent six weeks in bed. She would get up once a day, walk outside to get the mail, return, and then sleep again.
Williams recently looked at video taken during her medical peril and could not believe what she saw.
“I’m like passed out on the bed and I don’t look good at all,” Williams said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “It’s like shocking that things worked out.”
They certainly have, and remarkably well for a woman who went through such a difficult delivery just six months ago. Williams, unranked and 36 years old, is playing tennis again, and this week she plans to compete at Indian Wells, in her first professional tournament since she won the Australian Open in January of last year.
On Thursday she is slated to play a first-round match against Zarina Diyas, a 24-year-old from Kazakhstan ranked no. 53. Williams could then face Kiki Bertens, seeded No. 29, and then perhaps her sister, Venus Williams.
She tuned up for her return in an exhibition at Madison Square Garden on Monday evening, Tie Break Tens, a series of matches that use only tiebreakers rather than sets. Williams looked relaxed, won a round and hit a few aces that would have been just as good, and just as unreturnable, in a Grand Slam match.
Williams said she did not plan on having a child at this time in her life.
“Then it happened and it was—you know, you always hear people say, ‘Yeah, it’s the best thing you could do,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I really love the titles though,’ ” Williams said. “I love all my French Open titles. I could never really understand, like, people saying that they should give it all up. And I definitely get it now.”
Williams knows her game is not back to its peak level yet. But she is eager.
“I’m ready to just jump in and get started and see what happens,” she said. “Obviously I’m going to have a few hiccups, I would imagine, and I’m ready for that.”
Only three women in the Open era, which began in 1968, have won Grand Slam titles after delivering children, and all three of them were much younger than Williams when they won their post-pregnancy majors.
The most recent to pull it off, Kim Clijsters, returned from her pregnancy and won three major titles: two at the U.S. Open and one at the Australian Open. The first came at age 26 and the other two at age 27. Evonne Goolagong Cawley, from Australia, won her sole post-pregnancy title at age 28. Australian Margaret Court, who is the only player to lead Williams in career major singles titles—with 24 to Williams’s 23—won three different Slam titles at ages 30 and 31.
Lindsay Davenport, the former American champion, said the only title in tennis she considers as miraculous as a 24th major title for Williams would be Monica Seles’s lone major championship after she recovered from being stabbed in the back.
“It would definitely be one of the biggest accomplishments in all of sports,” Davenport said.
Williams said it shouldn’t matter that she’s older than the women whose feats she’s trying to match, or than the active women who’ll be trying to stop her.
“There’s nobody’s rule that says you have to retire at 30,” she said. “All the best players in the world now are well into their 30s, so you know, technology is better at enabling athletes to play a longer life.”
Williams said she plans to watch her child grow as she re-engages with the game. “I can’t wait for 3 or 4 a.m. when I get to hang out with Olympia; it’s like our special mommy-daughter time and I love it,” she said. “Literally it’s my favorite of the day.”
Williams is returning to a women’s tour that, in the absence of its queen, has been wild, exciting, unpredictable, and a ton of fun. Yet no new dominant force has held control for long. After Williams won the Australian Open last year, four different women won the next four major titles: Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia, Garbiñe Muguruza from Spain, American Sloane Stephens, and, most recently, Caroline Wozniacki at this year’s Australian Open.
Observers believe Williams is capable of re-asserting herself post-motherhood, though it won’t be easy.
“You never underestimate Williams,” said Brad Gilbert, the ESPN analyst and former coach. “But I really don’t know. She is 36 and hasn’t played in 13 months. It’s a lot. It’s not easy for anybody. Heck, at age 26 it would be hard.”
Serena Williams, bottom left, along with her husband Alexis Ohanian and their daughter Alexis Olympia, center, watch the action during the first round of the 2018 Fed Cup in February. Photo: Richard Shiro/Getty Images
No one expects Williams to dominate early on. Her strokes have some rust and her timing, in New York, wasn’t quite right. Every aspect of her game needs polishing, especially the way she moves. In tennis, anticipation and reaction to opponents’ shots is key: Without it, players reach the ball too late and miss more often. To be aggressive, Williams has to be consistent and keep the ball deep and heavily paced. Once she does that, the match looks like it slows down for her: Her opponents have less time, and give Williams more.
Rick Macci, the tennis instructor and once a young Williams’s coach, said he wouldn’t be surprised if her footwork is off early in her comeback. But if she doesn’t eventually correct that, he would be shocked, he said.
“Nothing in life is a slam dunk, but if I’m betting on anybody, I’m betting on Serena Williams,” Macci said. “Just because she is wired for winning. I don’t think she will stop until she breaks Court’s record.”
Williams said she sees traveling with her daughter as an adventure rather than a chore.
“We’ll see,” she said. “We’re using this first tournament as a trial. We’re like, OK, we don’t know how it’s going to work out. We’ll see. Everything’s new, everything’s new—and I’m looking forward to everything that’s new. I can’t wait.”