Tennis: Tough return for Serena Williams, says Chris Evert

Serena Williams of the US serving against Czech Republic's Lucie Safarova during their women's singles second round match on day four of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne, on Jan 19, 2017.
Serena Williams of the US serving against Czech Republic's Lucie Safarova during their women's singles second round match on day four of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne, on Jan 19, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

Motherhood, plus rise of new champions will be challenging factors for former world No. 1

Serena Williams will have a difficult comeback when she returns to the game next year, according to American tennis great Chris Evert.

Williams, the 23-time Grand Slam singles winner, missed most of this season as she gave birth to a daughter last month, but has targeted a return to action at January's Australian Open, where she is the defending champion.

Yet, 62-year-old Evert feels that there will be plenty of unknowns for the 36-year-old in her comeback, such that a return to her old dominance is not a given.

"How's it going to feel being a mother coming back? Is it going to distract her or motivate her?" the 18-time Grand Slam singles champion asked in a telephone interview from Florida yesterday.

"How will being a mother emotionally pull at her? Will that take anything away from her tennis?"

Apart from becoming one of the small group of mothers on the WTA Tour, Williams will also meet players - both new and familiar - who have improved in her absence.

This year saw two new players - current No. 1 Garbine Muguruza and Karolina Pliskova - occupy the WTA top ranking. There are also two first-time Major champions: Jelena Ostapenko (French Open) and Sloane Stephens (US Open).

World No. 2 Simona Halep and No. 3-ranked Elina Svitolina are all within a shot of clinching the year-end No. 1 ranking. And Williams need only look at her sister Venus to see a player enjoying a stunning revival in reaching two Grand Slam finals this year at the age of 37.

Said Evert: "The level will have improved by the time Serena comes back. (Other players) are not going to be as intimidated.

"I think there's going to be a lot of competition for Serena, I don't think anything is a given when she comes back."

A legend ambassador for the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global, Evert will be in town for the Oct 22-29 showpiece.

The top eight singles players will qualify for the season-ending event at the Singapore Indoor Stadium. Only two qualification spots in the Porsche Race to Singapore remain, currently held by Ostapenko and Briton Johanna Konta.

Last year's champion Dominika Cibulkova as well as semi-finalists Agnieszka Radwanska and Svetlana Kuznetsova are out of contention.

So is 2016 year-end world No. 1 Angelique Kerber, who had to win this week's China Open for an outside chance of qualification but was eliminated in the first round yesterday.

Evert believes the tough battle for the top eight spots is an indication of the depth at the top.

"It's not so much about struggling with pressure as compared to struggling with all the players," she said.

"(The No. 1 ranking) will go back and forth. It's a good thing. these players are fighting it out with one another to determine who's going to be the next leader of the women's game."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2017, with the headline 'Tough return for Serena: Evert'. Print Edition | Subscribe