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Serena Williams drops out of another tournament, raising questions about the French Open

Serena Williams played an exhibition match against Jelena Ostapenko in December in Dubai. (Tom Dulat/Getty Images)
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Serena Williams has withdrawn from a clay-court tournament for the second time this month, putting in question her participation in the French Open, the second Grand Slam event of 2018.

Saying she “continues to prepare to be 100 percent ready to compete,” she pulled out of the Italian Open Wednesday, five days after she dropped out of the Madrid Open. Williams, a four-time winner of the Italian Open in Rome, has played little this year and dropped out of the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam event of the year, in early January.

When she dropped out of the Australian Open at the beginning of the year, Williams, 36, said she was “super close” to returning to her championship form after giving birth to her first child last September, but close evidently isn’t enough.

“My coach and team always said ‘only go to tournaments when you are prepared to go all the way.’ I can compete — but I don’t want to just compete, I want to do far better than that and to do so, I will need a little more time,” she said then in a Snapchat post.

It was a particularly difficult decision not to play in Melbourne because Williams was just a few weeks pregnant with daughter Olympia when she won the tournament in early 2017. “The memory of last year’s Open is one that I will carry with me, and Olympia and I look forward to coming back again,” she explained in January. That trophy now sits in her daughter’s bedroom.

Now, with so little prep, it is unclear whether she will be ready for the French Open, which runs from May 27 to June 10. The winner of 23 Grand Slam tournaments and three French Opens, Williams missed 14 months during her pregnancy and suffered complications after Olympia’s birth. She lost an exhibition match in Dubai to French Open winner Jelena Ostapenko and returned to the WTA tour in March at the BNP Paribas Open, winning twice before a third-round loss to her sister, Venus. In her next event, the March 21 Miami Open, she lost her first match to Naomi Osaka and has not played in a tournament since. She has not played a match on clay since she reached the 2016 French Open final.

Williams has been open about her struggles to return to form after a delivery that was complicated when she developed a blood clot. Because of her history with clotting, she knew immediately what was happening and was quickly treated.  She required a post-Caesarian surgery and, in a story in Vogue last fall, she said she spent the first six weeks after giving birth in bed.

After her loss in Miami, her trainer, Mackey Shilstone, told her (via the New York Times), “Serena, you know how to play tennis. You are just not fit.” And, five weeks after that loss, he pronounced her fitness level to be “about 75 percent” of what it was during the 2017 Australian Open victory.

“I feel like since Miami, I’ve made a ton of progress, but who knows,” she told the Times. “I’ll have to see when I get out there to play a match. I always have to be ready, but I have to be even more ready because who knows who I can play early, or first or second. So I really have to be super-super-ready, so that’s kind of what I’ve been working on.”

Her entry into tournaments is guaranteed because she has a protected ranking, but, like players who have been out because of long-term injuries, she does not have a protected seeding that would ensure that she doesn’t play high-ranked players in the early rounds. Williams supports protected seedings, which have become a hot topic in the WTA.

“I think it’s more of a protection for women to have a life,” Williams said. “You shouldn’t have to wait to have a baby until you retire. If you want to have a baby and take a few months off or a year off and then come back, you shouldn’t have to be penalized for that. Pregnancy is not an injury.”

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