Serena Williams is pregnant and will be absent for the rest of 2017.
That’s the news that greeted us on Wednesday, and it has serious ramifications for the women’s tour. Williams, soon to return to world No.1 and the owner of 23 major singles titles, is the WTA’s biggest force, talent, icon and champion. And now she’s gone. Although she’s targeting a comeback in 2018, nobody knows when that will be, how it will go, or if it will eventuate at all.
So what does this mean for women’s tennis? Our tennismash team of Vivienne Christie (VC), Matt Trollope (MT) and Leigh Rogers (LR) offer their thoughts.
What does Serena’s pregnancy – and now indefinite absence – mean for women’s tennis?
VC: We’ve been saying for a while now that we need Serena to add some spice to the women’s game. And that’s still true, but it takes on a far different meaning now that we know she is pregnant and simply not playing. Of course we’ll miss Serena’s on-court feats as she sits out the rest of this season but the latest news adds suspense in the best possible way. Who will step up as Serena prepares for motherhood? That’s a question that clearly has incredible significance days out from Maria Sharapova’s comeback. Will Serena really return to the game, as she has already stated, in 2018? And if so, will she add to her record-breaking title count? In the longer-term future, there’s even early speculation of whether Serena’s baby will become another superstar player in the family. A cheeky press release that’s already landed in my inbox gave odds on whether Serena’s baby will reach the top 100, win a Grand Slam title and/or win more titles than Venus or Serena. But honestly, who cares about all that? I’m still absorbing the fact that she won her record-breaking 23rd Grand Slam – without dropping a set – in the early stages of pregnancy. Echoing the opinion that’s already been expressed thousands of times on social media today: Serena truly is the GOAT.
MT: As happy as I am for Serena that she will experience the joys of motherhood, I am not ready for a women’s tour sans its biggest star. I was so excited that, with Sharapova returning, Kvitova recovering and Azarenka slated to return in July, we’d have the best women competing again and see the resumption of some big rivalries. Now, sadly, we won’t. It also continues the theme I recently reported on of the biggest WTA names failing to appear on tour and fire simultaneously. Williams’ weapons, abilities and career achievements make her, far and away, the benchmark in women’s tennis. Want to prove yourself, win a major and become No.1? Then you’re likely going to have to dethrone the mighty Serena. Her high level of play in the past few years – beginning with the 2014 US Open, she has won six of the last 10 majors – has forced the other women to elevate their games. And as a result we’ve been blessed with some fabulous matches and rivalries between her and Azarenka, Garbine Muguruza, Simona Halep and Angelique Kerber, among others. With Williams out of the picture, the standard and intensity drops. The superstar power of the tour decreases. Sure, it’s a chance for other players to step up and fill the void, but I want to see these players do that while Serena is still a factor – like it or not, this adds weight and credibility to their achievements.
LR: Remember when Justine Henin shocked the tennis world with her first retirement in 2008? She was No.1 at the time and in the lead-up to the French Open, without warning, walked away from the sport she was currently dominating. Does this sound a bit familiar? Well, in the 12 months that followed Henin’s departure, the WTA Tour went through a transition period characterised by uncertainty. Five different players (Sharapova, Ivanovic, Jankovic, Serena and Safina) held the top ranking at different stages. To compare Serena to Henin would no doubt result in a steely-stare from the American champion, but there are some parallels here. Serena might not have played a full schedule in recent years – but next week she returns to world No.1. There is no denying she is the best player in the world right now and her dominance at Grand Slams is certainly going to be noticeable. The lack of consistency among the world’s best players right now also suggests we may see a number of different players rise to the top rank. Angelique Kerber will return when Serena loses her points from winning the Rome title in May, but may soon have to contend with the likes of the rising Karolina Pliskova, Johanna Konta and Caroline Wozniacki. Let’s not forget that Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka are on the comeback too. Women’s tennis is suddenly the most wide open it has been in decades.
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