Serena Williams is through taking baby steps on the comeback trail after the birth of her daughter Alexis Olympia in September.
The 23-time Grand Slam singles winner is ramping up her return this week by playing in Indian Wells, her first WTA Tour event since she won the 2017 Australian Open.
After a couple of exhibitions and a Davis Cup doubles match, Williams is eager to hit with the big guns as she opens her campaign on Thursday night against Zarina Diyas.
“I’m ready to just jump in and get started and see what happens,” the 36-year-old American told the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. “Obviously I’m going to have a few hiccups, I would imagine, and I’m ready for that.”
Earlier this week she played one tiebreaker in an exhibition tournament in New York. In February she played a doubles rubber for the US Fed Cup team, and took part in another exhibition in Abu Dhabi in late December.
Indian Wells features a star-studded women’s field in a tournament that looks wide open.
Many of the players on Wednesday said they welcomed Serena’s return.
“We are all going to look to see how she is playing,” said reigning Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza.
“She is one of the best players so it is good that she is back, especially after being a mom. It is great.”
French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko said Serena’s contribution to women’s tennis cannot be overstated.
“She is an amazing athlete,” said sixth seeded Latvian Ostapenko. “She is a very special and what she has done for women’s tennis is huge.”
– Pliskova doubts –
But Czech fifth seed Karolina Pliskova said it is going to take more than one WTA event for Serena to get back in championship form.
“Obviously it is tough to get back even for a champion like her,” Pliskova said Wednesday. “I don’t have that experience with having a baby, but I think it changes the body and the mindset a lot.
“We will see in the first round. For sure she is going to be a little bit nervous. I don’t know what kind of shape she is in and if she was practising or not practising.
“She can play good tennis again but I don’t know if it is going to be at this tournament maybe it will take her a while.”
The first clues to Williams’ form will be displayed in Thursday’s night game against Diyas,
Serena’s first match in Indian Wells will be Thursday night against Diyas, the 24-year-old world number 53 from Kazakhstan.
Serena boycotted this event, with her sister Venus, for 14 years after she was booed in the 2001 final. She returned in 2015 but had to pull out before her semi-final against Simona Halep with a knee problem.
Times have changed for the most successful female player of the Open era. If you asked her 10 years ago if she envisioned herself playing after the age of 30, Serena would have replied no.
But that was before she started collecting Grand Slam titles like others collect antique furniture or vinyl records.
“There’s nobody’s rule that says you have to retire at 30,” she told The Wall Street Journal. “All the best players in the world now are well into their 30s, so you know, technology is better at enabling athletes to play a longer life.”