The 36-year-old played alongside her big sister Venus in a superfluous doubles match Sunday afternoon at U.S. Cellular Center, after the U.S. team had already secured its win to advance to an April semifinal against France. The match resulted in a lackluster 6-2, 6-3 loss to Dutch pair Lesley Kerkhove and Demi Schuurs.
But in Serena Williams’s eyes, the match was simply a necessary starting point — both of the “long process” of regaining the form that will allow her to collect more Grand Slam titles, and of a new phase in her career.
“It’s an incredible learning experience,” Williams said Sunday when asked about bringing her daughter to her first pro tennis event after the hiatus. “I didn’t manage my time well, but I was thinking about it, in the future, how to manage it better. 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.”
Baby Alexis Olympia attracted her fair share of attention sitting in the row directly behind Team USA all weekend. She donned a red, white and blue outfit and sat calmly in either the lap of her father, who is Williams’s husband, Alexis Ohanian, or the capable arms of Williams’s agent Jill Smoller.
For her part, Williams seemed relaxed all weekend as well, sporting bright pink Nike sneakers when she wasn’t on the court, giggling and chatting with Venus whenever the two were near each other and posting clips of her daughter on social media.
But the new mom has made it clear that her comeback is no exercise in frivolity. She said Friday she has her sights set on winning two more Grand Slam titles — at the least — which would break Margaret Court’s record of 24.
In the short term, and while she has not spoken of any concrete plans for the rest of the year, Williams is on the entry list for the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., which starts March 5. After more than a year away from competition, she has no official ranking but can gain entry into tournaments with her protected No. 1 ranking.
This weekend, Williams showed she would have quite a bit of work to do in less than a month to play up to her usual standards in the desert.
Although she retained her power and arm speed on her groundstrokes months after post-delivery health complications — including blood clots forming in her lungs — kept her bedridden for six weeks after giving birth, there was plenty of rust in Williams’s game.
Her accuracy was off, movement around the court took more effort than fans are used to seeing and her serve — regarded as the best in women’s tennis — almost always clocked between 80 and 90 mph, about 15 to 30 mph slower than usual. She did crack one 119-mph miss and served an ace at 92 mph.
“Well, what I saw today was that she lacks match practice,” Team Netherlands captain Paul Haarhuis said. “She needs to play matches, get the first serve, the second serve, the returns, the court sense. That’s what she’s missing. That’s what everybody would be missing after a year off.
“But what I saw is she still has that sense of, ‘Okay, I need to hit a dink shot, I need to come with power now, I need to change up my serve not for a flat one, but a big kick.’
“That’s what makes her game so special. . . . She just needs to play matches. I think obviously she’s going to be disappointed she lost, but I think she realized from that match, ‘I need more matches like this.’ I think she’s going to be fine. She’s got the game, you know?”
For all the kinks there are to be worked out, Williams said she felt better than she thought she would.
“I feel like I’m on the right track,” she said.
But while Williams’s technical polish may have understandably waned, her desire to compete has not.
The stakes were low in Asheville, with its passionately pro-Williams crowd, a win in the Fed Cup tie already clinched and sister Venus right next to her on court for support, but still, Williams didn’t have to play this weekend, just five months after giving birth.
There is precedent for mothers on the pro tour finding success, but only one player since 1980 has won a Grand Slam title after giving birth: Belgium’s Kim Clijsters captured the 2009 U.S. Open title with her 18-month-old daughter Jada in tow. She had taken a nearly two-year sabbatical before that win.
Clijsters won three Grand Slam titles in her second act. She was also 26 when she won that title in 2009.
In Asheville, the first match back was something of a litmus test for Williams, who spoke earlier in the weekend of the ups and downs she has experienced in trying to get back into the rhythm of waking up every day and hitting the practice court.
She didn’t quite know what to expect Sunday.
“Maybe that’s why I felt like I did better,” Williams said. “I didn’t expect to, I don’t know, have that much power on my serves, even though they didn’t go in. It’s just a start. I feel like that’s a very good step in the right direction.”
On Sunday, perhaps the only thing as clear as Williams’s desire to return was tennis fans’ desire to have her back.
Women’s tennis abandoned much of its sense of order and has instead been thrilling and surprising in the absence of its most dominant player, with three women of varying levels of experience on the WTA Tour winning their first career Grand Slams in the past year.
Still, Williams’s attempted comeback will be a major story line in the sport this year, and fans will be watching closely. On Sunday, the raucous crowd brandished large American flags, did the wave and honked on vuvuzelas, eager to cheer for her once again.
“I love you, Serena!” shouted one spectator, and three others in the crowd claimed they loved her even more until one diplomatic fan settled on a cheer that satisfied them all: “We love you, Serena!”
After that, Williams walked off the court with her sister by her side, and the pair shared a smile, despite the loss.