Even the most ardent tennis fan would have trouble identifying Alison Riske, Jamie Hampton and Julia Cohen. But they’re among the 14 American women’s tennis players currently ahead of Serena Williams in the world rankings.
This mattered not, of course, to first lady Michelle Obama, daughters Sasha and Malia and the rest of the capacity crowd of 2,600 that turned out Thursday night to cheer Williams as she led the Washington Kastles to a 25-10 victory over the Boston Lobsters in a World Team Tennis match at the franchise’s new Southwest Washington waterfront venue.
It was Williams’s first match since her fourth-round ouster at Wimbledon last week, which plunged her ranking to 175th in the world.
Two factors led to the precipitous drop: The fact that Williams was sidelined by illness and injury for 11 months of the year-long cycle on which rankings are based; and the fact that she fell well short of replicating her 2010 Wimbledon championship, which marked her 13th Grand Slam title.
“I haven’t played in a year except for two tournaments,” Williams noted during a news conference before Thursday’s match, clearly not interested in dissecting her ranking. “It is what it is.”
Williams’s career has been fraught with setbacks since her 2010 Wimbledon triumph — most notably, a freak foot injury days later that required two surgeries to repair. Then, this past spring, she suffered a pulmonary embolism.
After sitting out for so long, Williams isn’t the competitor she was a year ago. While a formidable athlete, she lacks the lightning-quick reflexes that come with match play. She has also lost a measure of the edge she enjoyed for so many years the moment she stepped on court — an aura of intimidation that made opponents doubt they could match her power and pace.
All of that was evident in Williams’s straight-sets loss to Marion Bartoli of France at Wimbledon. But it was an encouraging first step back. And Williams, who turns 30 in September, conceded as much Thursday.
“I feel like I showed up and did a halfway decent job,” Williams said of her Wimbledon showing. “I’m hoping to continue to build on that and do better.”
Looking on from the stands at Kastles Stadium at the Wharf was Williams’s elder sister Isha Price, who said in an interview that Serena had hoped to achieve more at Wimbledon.
“I don’t think she thought it was a good result,” Price said. “At the end of the day, she wanted to win. She wanted to win as many matches as possible.
“But you have to have a mind-body connection to come back and do what she wants to do. So that’s what we’re saying to her now, in support.”
Added Price: “I think she’s in a good place right now. She came back with an understanding of what she needs to work on, and she’s working hard. So it’s a real positive outlook right now.”
Thursday night, Williams got nothing but positive vibes from a crowd that cheered her every stroke.
At one end of the court, in a section dubbed the “Dream Seats”— essentially the Kastles’ version of Center Court’s royal box at Wimbledon—10-year-old Sasha Obama held aloft a sign that read “Let’s Go Kastles!” on one side and “Refuse to Lose” on the other, pumping her arms in time to the blaring music.
At the opposite end sat former Redskins player Ken Harvey and former Washington Wizard Caron Butler, who looked on with unabashed admiration as Williams teamed with Rennae Stubbs to win the women’s doubles set, then teamed with Leander Paes to win the mixed-doubles set.
“She’s definitely a special and gifted athlete — an unbelievable competitor,” said Butler, who missed the Dallas Mavericks’ playoff run to the NBA championship because of a knee injury. “To see her back performing, it’s bringing new life to her. She’s glowing. She’s smiling and dancing, jumping around like she’s embracing it at a whole other level now.”
With Williams on a tear, the Kastles’ lead was insurmountable heading into the final set, in which she faced Coco Vandeweghe in women’s singles. She won that, too.
“Serena is just lights out — the biggest ball-striker in the history of the game!” gushed Kastles Coach Murphy Jensen.
Asked how close he felt Williams was to her championship form, Jensen said: “She’s around the corner. I pick her to win the U.S. Open, and I pick her to win four Grand Slams next year.”