NEW YORK • Serena Williams, the best women's tennis player of this era and one of the world's most prominent athletes, confirmed on Wednesday that she is pregnant and expecting her first child later this year.
The 35-year-old has not played a competitive match since winning her 23rd Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open on Jan 28, when she was already close to two months pregnant.
More Major titles will have to wait, if they happen at all.
The world No. 2 will turn 36 in September, but her spokesman Kelly Bush Novak said that, while the American player would miss the rest of this season, she intended to return to the circuit next year.
"Serena said that I should make sure, if anyone asks that, that is clear," Bush Novak said.
The announcement was the latest surprise from Williams, who will still return to world No. 1 next week. She had unexpectedly announced her engagement to American Alexis Ohanian, a businessman and the co-founder of Reddit, in December.
"I'm elated for her. I've seen her with my son, and she will be a great mother," said Andy Roddick, a former men's world No. 1 and a good friend of Williams.
Chris Evert, the former women's No. 1, said she communicated with Williams via text on Wednesday.
"Getting married and having a child is a special journey," Evert said. "She, to me, is more than ready for this lifestyle change. It's been 20 years on Tour."
Williams is the second leading women's tennis player to announce a pregnancy in the past year.
Victoria Azarenka, a former No. 1 player and a two-time Grand Slam champion, left the circuit in June and gave birth to a son, Leo, in December. The 27-year-old is planning to return to competition in late July after Wimbledon.
By winning in Australia, Williams broke her tie with Steffi Graf for the most Grand Slam singles titles in the Open era. She ranks behind only Margaret Court's 24 on the career list.
Court, an Australian, won the last three of those titles in 1973 after giving birth to a son, Danny, in 1972.
Others have returned to the circuit after motherhood and prospered, including Kim Clijsters, the former top-ranked star who won the US Open in 2009 and 2010 and the Australian Open in 2011 after the birth of her daughter, Jada, in 2008.
The Belgian retired in 2012 at 29. Court played in her last Grand Slam tournament at 33.
But no leading singles player has returned from pregnancy at Williams' age.
Then again, she has spent a career defying convention, becoming a champion despite playing little competitive junior tennis and returning from long layoffs and major health issues to dominate.
She has won 10 of her 23 Major singles titles since turning 30 and is by far the oldest woman to hold the No. 1 spot in the WTA rankings.
"I think if Serena wants to come back after having a baby, I think she's proven at this point that age is not a big factor for her," said Pam Shriver, an analyst and a former world No. 3. "She may even feel she can take a little lesson from Roger Federer. I know it's for different reasons, but look how he's come back at age 35.
AN ATHLETE FOR THE AGES
I think if Serena wants to come back after having a baby, I think she's proven at this point that age is not a big factor for her.
PAM SHRIVER , former tennis player and ESPN analyst, believes Serena Williams can compete at a high level after she gives birth to her first child.
" I don't think it really matters if you're 35 or 37 or 38. You're part of that same age group, and once you've gotten over that mental hump of competing at this higher level in your 30s, which she obviously has, it is certainly possible."
When, or even if, Williams will return to the court remains a question, but she has already made an indelible stamp on tennis in particular and on sports in general.
The most successful American tennis player in recent years, before Williams, was Pete Sampras, who never played on the ATP Tour again after winning the last of his 14 Grand Slam singles titles at the 2002 US Open.
"For Serena to have her last tournament be winning the Australian Open would be a pretty fitting end to an all-time great career, too," Shriver said. "Whatever happens, hopefully it's happily ever after."