By Mike McIntyre
As Serena Williams prepares to return to the WTA Tour Thursday in Indian Wells, I'm reminded of a conversation with Caroline Wozniacki from last summer at the Rogers Cup in Toronto where the current World No. 2 remarked in jest, "Serena, you know, let us win sometimes that would be nice."
Williams did her best to oblige during her roughly 13 months away from the sport and in the process fulfilled her friend Wozniacki's request at least long enough to allow the Dane her first career Grand Slam title this year in Australia. Hopefully others on the Tour were able to similarly benefit, if even on a smaller scale, while the American legend was pregnant with her first child that she gave birth to this past September. If Williams comeback goes according to plan, she will be back to her dominating ways soon enough and adding to her current mind-boggling total of 23 Grand Slam titles.
One thing is clear - Serena's peers are not going to be surprised one bit if she captures No. 24 this year. Speaking with current No. 4 Elina Svitolina earlier this week in New York, the rising 23 year old star admitted that, "I think she can come back at the same level she was at before. Also there will be something new from her, that’s what I’m expecting. Even for her"
Whether or not we see anything new from Williams remains to be seen. On Monday night at Madison Square Garden in the fast-paced Tie Break Tens event she thrilled the adoring crowd with two tiebreaks that reminded us all of her lethal serve and blazing groundstrokes. Her fitness will understandably still need some time to come into focus and there were more errors against Marion Bartoli and Shuai Zhang than she would have liked, but Serena has over two months to shake-off the rust before she enters the first Grand Slam of her return to the sport at Roland Garros in Paris.
I asked retired pro Daniela Hantuchova, who faced Williams ten times over the course of her steady career, about what she expected in her former opponent's return. "It’s hard to say how she’s going to play within the next few weeks. But knowing her and knowing what a champion she is – it might be a little harder because she has different priorities right now - but she’s been the greatest champion of our game." When I pressed on about whether or not we could expect a Slam from Serena in 2018, Hantuchova replied quickly, "If she wants to...it’s on her terms."
Fed Cup teammate CoCo Vandeweghe echoed similar sentiments when I asked her about her compatriots return to the court. "She's a great competitor. She's a champion for a reason. I expect that if she wants to come back and compete to her full ability, she'll be ready to go." As for whether or not she would expect another Slam from Serena, Vandeweghe said matter-of-factly, "That's up to her - I don't have a crystal ball."
Canada's rising phenom meanwhile, Bianca Andreescu, feels that Serena's potential for Grand Slam success is limitless. The 17 year old - who is less than half of Williams' age - told me that, "I think she can (win a Slam). I think every tournament she goes into she wants to win it and her desire on the court - I don’t think she’ll ever lose it. So I think she’s going to win – maybe even all of them!"
Serena's return to professional tennis begins against Zarina Diyas in her first real match back on the WTA Tour. The American holds a 2-0 career advantage in their head-to-head including a 6-2, 6-0 victory back in 2015 at this very tournament. While a result of that type of lopsided score this time around is unlikely, it wouldn't surprise anyone if it did indeed repeat itself. Just like Serena hoisting another Grand Slam trophy wouldn't either.