Saturday, June 25, 2022

What we learned from Serena Williams’ return, from her fitness to Wimbledon hopes

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The 23-time Grand Slam champion returned to winning ways in her comeback after almost a year in doubles at Eastbourne

Her star quality remains undiminished despite a 12-month layoff; Previously, fans stood six deep as she trained on an outdoor court, eager to catch a glimpse of the former world No. 1.

EASTBOURNE – Although three British players were previously in action on Center Court, it was Serena Williams that the crowd wanted to see at Eastbourne.

She has competed in the doubles event at Eastbourne with Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur to give up her turf practice ahead of another tilt to the singles crown at Wimbledon, which begins on Monday.

Her fitness was tested in Tuesday’s win over Czech Marie Bouzkova and Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo – 2-6 6-3 13-11 in 93 minutes. At times Williams seemed rusty, even rooted to the point, as her opponents praised her multiple times, and her serve wasn’t the powerful weapon we’re used to.

But there were flashes of old Williams too – zingers on the line and wild smashes in the net and a few serves at 184 and 190 km/h.

Since winning her 23rd Grand Slam title (the 2017 Australian Open), Williams has faltered in her attempt to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24, losing in four Slam finals.

She denies she’s chasing the record, but how else to explain arriving at Wimbledon with a hamstring injury like she did last year? She came on the court for her first game against Aliaksandra Sasnovich with a heavily strapped right thigh, retired after six games and has not played a competitive singles game since.

But Williams seemed relaxed in the double victory on Tuesday. “It was fun,” she said afterwards. “It was good to be back on the pitch.”

She’ll need that positive attitude – and more match practice – when she goes to Wimbledon. At 40, Williams is more than twice the age of some of her fellow contestants, including Emma Raducanu.

Much depends on the draw, which will be published on Friday morning. Williams, who is ranked at world No. 1,204, has received a wild card and is unseed – meaning she could face top seed and world No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the first round.

The retirement of last year’s champion Ashleigh Barty removed a dangerous opponent, but players who beat Williams – including 15th- and 16th-seeded Angelique Kerber and Simona Halep, who defeated the American in the 2018 and 2019 Wimbledon finals respectively – remain .

Yet Williams, who has graced 33 Grand Slam finals, knows how to play the big points and, like all great champions, can find another level for the big occasion. And their powerful game is seen as a threat even after such a long break, world No. 4 Paula Badosa said earlier this week.

“Of course I don’t want to play against them,” said the Spaniard. “Because nobody wants to play Serena and [even] less on grass.”

Realistically, should Williams reach the business end of Wimbledon, it would be as big a surprise as Raducanu’s win at the US Open last year. But if sheer determination counts, Williams will be there.

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