Serena Williams wins in her return to tennis at Eastbourne

Serena Williams’ game was rusty, but the instincts that made her an enduring champion propelled her to victory on her return to the sport she had dominated for so long.

Williams, 40, ended a nearly year-long absence from tennis on Tuesday by teaming up with Ons Jabeur to defeat Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo and Czech Republic’s Marie Bouzkova 2-6, 6 at the Rothesay International tournament in Eastbourne, England : 3, 13: 11 to defeat.

Their pairing came as a surprise and their lack of familiarity against the experienced duo of Sorribes Tormo and Bouzkova was evident early on, but Williams picked up as the game progressed.

“I caught some fire behind me,” Williams said in a post-game interview on the Tennis Channel. “They played really well in the first set. They jammed.”

The win gave her some much-needed playing experience before she returns to singles play as a wildcard at Wimbledon next week. Williams has won seven of her 23 Grand Slam singles titles at Wimbledon, her last triumph there in 2016. “Oh my god, Ons was so much fun playing,” Williams said.

Williams served to open Tuesday’s game, occasionally giving glimpses of her fearsome old serve. She felt more comfortable as the game progressed, moving better, going to the net with confidence and mixing in good volleys as she regained her touch. She was also able to ward off a stumble on the grass in the sixth game of the second set, banishing memories of the mishap that kept her off the court and derailed her quest for Margaret Court’s record 24 Grand Slam singles titles .

Prior to Tuesday, Williams had not competed since June 29, when she slipped on the grass during her Wimbledon singles first-round match against Aliaksandra Sasnovich and retired with an ankle injury. She remains second behind court with 23 Slam singles titles.

Williams didn’t need to play again to cement her legacy as one of the sport’s greatest competitors and a compelling source of inspiration, especially for women of color who may never have seen a top athlete like her before. She came back for the competitiveness that has fueled her rise from Compton places onto the world stage, a determination that will be tested by opponents who are fit and sometimes two decades younger.

It was never clear if she would return because she has many other interests. In addition to being the mother of 4½-year-old daughter Olympia, she has a large portfolio of sponsorships and runs a venture capital firm called Serena Ventures, which raised a $111 million early-stage fund this year to promote companies, founded by women, Black , and Latino entrepreneurs.

She was also credited as executive producer of the 2021 film King Richard, which tells the story of her father Richard and his relentless pursuit of fame for her and her sister Venus. It was nominated for six Academy Awards and won one, for Will Smith starring as Richard Williams.

Serena Williams scores a return during their doubles match at Eastbourne on Tuesday.

Serena Williams scores a return during their doubles match at Eastbourne on Tuesday.

(Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press)

Doubts about her return were heightened in April when her manager Patrick Mouratoglu became Simona Halep’s full-time manager. He accepted that job, he said, only after speaking to Williams.

“The door opened for me, at least in the short term, to work with someone else,” he said. And Williams hadn’t posted any practice videos or photos to social media, as players often do to update their fans, although she did give accounts of her business and social activities.

Her decision to play doubles at Eastbourne was wise because it should ease her transition back to singles competition. It came as their coach Eric Hechtman approached Jabeur’s coach Issam Jellali ahead of the French Open to ask if Jabeur would be interested in working with Williams at Eastbourne. Jabeur, who has risen to become the career-best No. 3 in the world, kept his agreement a secret until just days ago.

“I’m really happy that she chose me. I’m pretty happy to share the seat with her,” Jabeur said during a media session ahead of the Eastbourne tournament. “I’ve always watched Serena play and always supported her. She is such a legend and such a role model for our sport.”

Williams was world No. 8 at Wimbledon last year. She is No. 1,204 as she returns to a drastically changed landscape on the women’s tour.

Ash Barty, who was No. 1 when she won Wimbledon last year, retired after winning this year’s Australian Open and is no longer ranked. Then no. No. 2 Naomi Osaka has slipped to 42nd after missing several tournaments to look after her mental health and being handicapped by a sore Achilles tendon. Halep, No. 3 a year ago, was No. 19 when the latest ranking was released on Monday.

Only two women who were in the top 10 at Wimbledon last year remain there: Iga Swiatek of Poland, who was then No. 9 and has risen to No. 1 with a 35-game winning streak, and Aryna Sabalenka, who was before one Year #4 and is now #6.

Williams has not won a Slam singles title since the Australian Open in 2017, when she was in the early stages of her pregnancy. In 2018 and 2019, she reached the finals at Wimbledon and the US Open, but lost in straight sets all four times.

It’s never wise to count them. And grass is good ground for her, especially when she’s still hitting her powerful serve. But the new depth on the Tour and its lack of new competition will create significant obstacles.

“It’s a long time not to play,” Karolina Pliskova, the Wimbledon 2021 runner-up, said in an interview outside Eastbourne. “She is not the youngest and the body needs time to get back into shape to play games and tournaments. It’s still very different than just practicing.

“But of course she is a great player and she has achieved so much. I think a number of players will be very afraid to play against them. That’s their advantage, but let’s look at their level.”

The Wimbledon draw takes place on Friday. “Obviously I don’t want to play them,” said world No. 4 Paula Badosa. “I hope the tie goes to another player because nobody wants to play against Serena, and even less on grass. Let’s pray for it.”

It would have been unbearably sad if her tearful departure from Wimbledon last year had been her final sight in a competitive game. Her comeback is a gift to her, to the sport of tennis, and to everyone who appreciates the power of a woman not just to win trophies, but to change the world. Serena Williams wins in her return to tennis at Eastbourne

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