Serena Williams’ long-awaited comeback began in the humble and quiet surroundings of a private tennis club in Eastbourne. After arriving in the UK days after announcing his return to tennis, Williams opted to keep a low profile. She remained offsite even at the start of the tournament. She refused to hold a single press conference.
While training with Frances Tiafoe on Sunday at Meads Tennis Club, her first onlookers were the passers-by who happened to glance at the club from the hilly road and, to their audible shock, saw the one of the most famous athletes in the world watches them.
On Tuesday afternoon, Williams finally stepped onto the pitch at Eastbourne International and alongside Ons Jabeur made a winning comeback in her first match after a year-long layoff. After a rusty start, the pair recovered from a set and a break to defeat Marie Bouzkova and Sara Sorribes Tormo 2-6, 6-3, 13-11.
It wasn’t until Tuesday afternoon that Williams and Jabeur met as partners and trained together for the first time and it showed. Some aspects of Williams’ game were understandably rusty after such a long layoff and Jabeur, in the singles form of her life, is less secure on the doubles court. They were crushed early on by their strong and assertive opponents. But as the game went on, Williams steadily improved. His serve was at its best and those essential little steps around the ball returned.
After a break, Williams served the second set with vintage play. First, she uncorked a winner from the angled backhand kick as she was on the run, punctuating her shot with an elongated growl, then she closed the door with an ace in composure.
As the tie-break began, Williams had woken up and she was rock solid from the baseline, but it was Jabeur who clinched the decisive point, feathering a spectacular drop shot winner to bring it up the match point, and the crowd at his feet, before they took it. As they celebrated, Jabeur and Williams pointed at each other, pleading with the crowd to soak it up.
“It was so much fun,” Jabeur said. “I was nervous before playing with such a legend, he made me good on the pitch, even when I made mistakes, he kept cheering me on.”
It’s a step forward for Williams, but the future remains uncertain. She has not competed for 51 weeks after slipping in the first round of Wimbledon last year and sustaining a hamstring injury, forcing her to withdraw from the tournament. For the past year she has remained in the public eye, but her absence from the tour at 40 has led many to wonder if she was last competing.
Such thoughts were obviously on his mind as well. “I literally take it one day at a time,” she said. “I really took my time with my hamstring injury so I just don’t make a ton of decisions after that.”
Pushed on whether she would fully return to the tour in 2023 if her body is healthy, her indecision about her future was clear. “I don’t know. I can’t answer that. I love tennis and I love playing, otherwise I wouldn’t be here, would I? But I also love what I do outside land, which I built with Serena Ventures. It’s interesting, so it’s a lot.
As she nursed her hamstrings and then broke away from the sport, Williams admitted there were times over the past year when she wondered if she was still capable of playing: “I would be dishonest if I said I wasn’t. Now my body feels good. It’s double, I only play on half the field. I did a lot of training and it feels really good.
She is back for another attempt at her 24th Grand Slam title. It was just the beginning, her first baby steps in the sport after such a long layoff, but it remains to be seen where she is headed.
Tuesday was a great day for the British players at Eastbourne. Katie Boulter, a former top-100 player still trying to come back from various injuries, picked up the biggest win of her career beating No.7 Karolina Pliskova 1-6, 6-4, 6-4 to reach the knockout stages of final. No. 169 Jodie Burrage ended the day by upsetting world No. 4 Paula Badosa 6-4, 6-3.
Meanwhile, Ryan Peniston continued his grass breakout season by upsetting 8th seed Holger Rune 4-6, 7-6(5), 6-1.