No one ever said coming back to tennis after an extended absence would be easy for Serena Williams. But when Williams said she was ready to play in the French Open, it seemed she thought she’d be in shape to challenge for the title. After all, conventional wisdom is that the 23-time Grand Slam champion doesn’t enter tournaments unless she thinks she has a chance to win.
Nevertheless, it was hard not to be a little bit skeptical. After all, it’s never easy for a new mother to return to any sport. It takes time and training to get the body back into the shape it was before pregnancy–and that’s true for any woman, not just elite athletes.
Serena was immediately given a tough–but not impossible–draw. Krystina Pliskova is a tough opponent who hits the ball hard, and it showed a good test for Serena’s strength. Her serve held up, and she was able to outhit her opponent and win the match. Then came the second-round match against Ashleigh Barty. Barty took over a year away from the game of tennis also–but in her case, it was to pursue a professional cricket career. Of course, Barty returned to the game over two years ago, and is now up to #17 in the world.
Barty came out pretty strong, but it was clear that Serena was not playing up to her usual level from before her break from tennis. She played a poor service game in the middle of the set, and Barty won a break which she would not relinquish, winning the first set 6-3.
It’s hard to understate how poorly Williams played in that first set. There were issues with her court positioning, her movement looked suspect, and she missed easy shots that we would never expect. The same continued into the first game of the second set, and Serena was quickly broke. It looked like the match would be an easy victory for Barty.
Then, out of nowhere, it was as if a switch had flipped. Serena suddenly started playing unbeatable tennis. It was oddly reminiscent of the 2015 French Open, where Serena played very poor first sets in her second, third, and fourth-round matches before winning without being troubled in the next two sets. Serena broke Barty twice and took the second set 6-3.
The three-time French Open champion broke again early in the third set, and held on for the rest of the match. Barty put up a stiff challenge, and really forced Serena out of her comfort zone with a mix of slices and topspin shots. Williams was not as consistent as in the past, but that’s somewhat to be expected.
This match could be exactly what Serena Williams needed. The American was playing a seeded player who was playing good tennis. She found her gear and what she needed to move through the match. She showed that she can now play at a level good enough to beat the top players in the world.
Will this be enough for Serena to challenge for the title moving forward? It’s hard to say. She needs to win five more matches, and it only gets more difficult from here. It’s impossible to know quite what level her fitness is at, either, because she hasn’t had to play two weeks of competitive tennis in almost 18 months. One thing is for sure, though.
Serena Williams is back. And even if it’s not quite enough to win this tournament, she will almost certainly be one of the favorites at Wimbledon.
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