Updated: December 26, 2017 7:24:36 pm
January 28, 2017 – Last time Serena Williams featured on a tennis court.
December 30, 2017 – Next time Serena Williams will, or is scheduled to, feature on a tennis court.
336 days was the time Serena Williams was away from action. During this period, she skipped three Grand Slams and saw Latvia’s Jelena Ostapenko win French Open and fellow American Sloane Stephens win the US Open – both with their maiden major titles. In the middle, Garbine Muguruza picked up her second Grand Slam title. Amid this, the women’s tour saw the World No 1 title change hands numerous times to finally rest in Simona Halep’s hands at the end of the season. For Serena, it was only the second instance where she had sat out three consecutive Grand Slams (previous being missing 2010-11 from US Open to French Open as she suffered from hematoma and a pulmonary embolism).
This time however Serena sat out, not nursing an injury, because she was pregnant – as she was at the Australian Open where she beat sister Venus in the final for her record 23rd Grand Slam to go past Steffi Graf and stand just one shy of equalling Margaret Court’s record. To magnify her exemplary achievement, she didn’t drop a set during her campaign. She rose from World No 2 to World No 1 and also set a record for most Slams in the Open Era.
Having played just two tournaments in the year, Auckland and Australian Open, Serena ended speculation of being pregnant that all began with a “mistaken” Snapchat. On April 19 she confirmed she was pregnant and going to skip the entire season. In the process, she left the door ajar for other women on tour to catch up and take control of the proceedings. Many expected Angelique Kerber to step up – as she did in 2016. The German won the Australian Open and US Open in 2016 while also bagging the silver medal at the Rio Olympics to finish the season as World No 1.
However, she capitulated miserably to not win a single title or even reach a final. She did hold the World No 1 ranking thrice in the season but lost out on many points with a showing that was below par by her standards. Not so surprisingly, she announced she was going to end her long-term association with coach Torben Beltz and start working with Wim Fissette for 2018.
The whole situation brings to memory the 2015 season where Serena didn’t play beyond the US Open. Then she was stunned by Roberta Vinci in the semifinals at Flushing Meadows which dashed her dream of winning four consecutive Grand Slam titles. It had created a chance for other women to cut her sizable lead at the top but due to the inconsistency, always considered as the bane of the WTA Tour, it didn’t materialise.
2017 was a case of the same. Serena had walked out the season with a Slam by her side and World No 1 ranking next to her name. When she begins the 2018 season with an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi – by facing Ostapenko – she would be eyeing equaling Court’s record in Melbourne and resume from World No 22 in the rankings.
At the top of the charts, the No 1 ranking changed hands eight times – four times since Serena forfeited, or had to forfeit, in May. Since then, Kerber, Karolina Pliskova, Garbine Muguruza and Halep staked claim before the Romanian did enough to hold on. At the same time, she carried home an interesting looking bouquet of roses shaped around No 1 following a runner up finish at Beijing.
If one were to indeed narrow down the field in terms of players who stood out above the rest in 2017 and could give Serena plenty of challenge in 2018, Halep, Muguruza and Venus would be top choices. Halep, under Darren Cahill, has proven to be a force to reckon with. Once she gets set and going, there is little that an opponent can do to counter her thundering groundstrokes. But, as is the problem with many players on the WTA, consistency continues to be her biggest challenge.
She won a single title – in Madrid – in 2017 but if she is to prove herself and become a real contender to take on Serena, she has to get better at Grand Slams. She was stopped in her tracks by Ostapenko in Paris in arguably the match of the season as far as women’s tennis is concerned. She’s reached the semifinals and finals of majors twice but hasn’t lifted the trophy. With her World No 1 trophy, she also entered a select batch of players comprising Kim Clijsters, Amelie Mauresmo, Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina, Caroline Wozniacki and Pliskova to go top of the rankings without winning a Grand Slam first.
If one were to push and look hard for the most consistent player on tour, Muguruza would be it. The Spaniard won Wimbledon by beating Venus in the final and became the first player to beat both Williams sisters in a Grand Slam final. She won the title on the hard courts of Cincinnati and reached the semifinals or did better at Brisbane, Rome, Birmingham, Stanford and Tokyo. After the US Open, she became the 24th player to hold the World No 1 ranking and the first Spaniard since Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in 1995.
In a season that was unpredictable from the start, barring Serena winning the Australian Open, Venus was the pick of the lot in terms of going deep into tournaments. Her consistency was reflected in the fact that she emerged as the prize money leader. The veteran braved and battled through the mental challenge posed of being involved in a car crash that saw one man dead. She was cleared of any criminal charges past week. On the tennis court, though, she didn’t let it show by reaching the finals of Australian Open, Wimbledon and WTA Finals. In Melbourne, she reached her first Slam final since 2009 and first in Australia since 2003 after coming from a set down to beat CoCo Vandeweghe. At the All England Club, she was thumped by Muguruza in a one-sided affair. At Flushing Meadows, she was beaten by eventual champion Stephens and ended the season with a defeat to Wozniacki in the final.
Heading into 2018, it would be interesting to see how fit Serena is to play after the birth of her daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian in September. She was already hitting the tennis courts while pregnant and now that she’s had time to recover, if anyone can stage a successful return, it is Serena.