What was set to be Serena Williams’s low-key but triumphant return to competitive tennis on Sunday, after more than a year away from the game, was instead a signal that the 36-year-old, 23-time Grand Slam winner is far from peak form. At least in matches that don’t matter.
At the Fed Cup in Asheville, N.C., Williams and her sister Venus lost their doubles match to Lesley Kerkhove and Demi Schuurs of the Netherlands, 6-2, 6-3. The U.S. team had already secured the win, so the already low-pressure match—Fed Cup not WTA, doubles not singles, small arena not center court—was rendered, officially, totally meaningless. But of course it wasn’t. Besides an exhibition match in December, which Williams lost to Jelena Ostapenko, and a few social media videos of hitting practice, it was the first look at Williams back in action, only five months after giving birth to her daughter Alexis Olympia via C-section and suffering postpartum complications that included blood clots in her lungs and a torn incision site that left her confined to bed for weeks. (Last month, Williams decided to withdraw from the Australian Open, saying she needed more time to prepare.)
In a press conference on Friday, Serena Williams explained why she decided to make her return at the relatively minor Fed Cup. Per the Washington Post:
“Why not Fed Cup? It’s a great opportunity to get a new set of eyes on what I’ve been doing, with [U.S. Fed Cup Captain Kathy Rinaldi], and also just hitting with different people and seeing different balls and seeing lots of different things. So I think actually it’s a really perfect opportunity to try and come back.”
She continued, “It’s almost relaxing for me because I have nothing to prove.”
Maybe too relaxing. Williams is a fierce competitor, and that’s how she became the greatest tennis player of all time. She practically lives on the big stages of Grand Slams—before taking a break to have her baby, she was barely playing minor tournaments, much less the Fed Cup. Easing back into tennis with exhibitions and small tournaments makes sense for conditioning reasons, but from a competitor’s perspective, it’s wanting. It’s not hard to see Williams possibly having a hard time getting her competitive dander up in a match that doesn’t matter for her team’s advancement, against two players outside the world top-100. Despite the loss, Williams was upbeat in her post-match presser (via the AP):
“I didn’t expect to have that much power on my serves, even though they didn’t go in,” she said. “It’s just a start. I feel like that’s a very good step in the right direction.”
And she’s rightly giving herself time to adjust to life on the road with a new baby in tow:
“I didn’t manage my time well, but I was thinking about it in the future how to manage it better,” Serena Williams said. “This is literally my first time traveling with the baby and everything. I’m going to try to do better. It was hard. It was the first time for me.”
But the most telling insight she offered after the match was about her expectations for herself.
“I think if I walk out there with low expectations, then I need to stop doing what I do,” she said. “So that’s never going to happen for me. I’m always going to have the best and highest expectations for myself. I’m OK with that because that’s just who I am.”
As Williams gets a few more matches under her belt and continues her comeback, don’t be surprised when she plays her best tennis when the stakes, and therefore her expectations for herself, are the highest.
As Netherlands captain Paul Haarhuis said after the match, “I think she’s going to be fine. ... She’s got the game, you know.”