Williams will not defend title

Serena Williams returning the ball to Jelena Ostapenko at the Mubadala Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi last Saturday. The 36-year-old lost 6-2, 3-6, 5-10 in her first match after taking nearly 11 months off for the birth of her first child in Septem
Serena Williams returning the ball to Jelena Ostapenko at the Mubadala Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi last Saturday. The 36-year-old lost 6-2, 3-6, 5-10 in her first match after taking nearly 11 months off for the birth of her first child in September.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Former world No. 1 pulls out of Aussie Open, saying she's not back at her best

NEW YORK • Pronouncing herself not quite ready to return to tournament tennis, Serena Williams announced her withdrawal from the Australian Open on Thursday.

The 36-year-old has not played an official match since winning her seventh Australian Open singles title nearly a year ago when she was - unbeknown to all but a select few - two months pregnant.

She gave birth to daughter Alexis Olympia on Sept 1, and married Alexis Ohanian on Nov 16.

She has since returned to the practice court and played - and lost - an exhibition match in Doha, Qatar, to Jelena Ostapenko last Saturday.

"After performing in my first match after giving birth, I realised that although I am super close, I'm not where I personally want to be," the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion said in a statement on Thursday.

"My coach and team always said, 'Only go to tournaments when you are prepared to go all the way'.

"I can compete - but I don't want to just compete, I want to do far better than that and to do so, I will need a little more time."

The American looked understandably rusty against the big-hitting Ostapenko, struggling with her lateral speed and failing to generate consistent power with her normally fearsome first serve.

But she competed with intensity and often struck the ball effectively when she was in good positions. Her baseline power clearly was still intact.

Within her camp, it was already considered unlikely that she would play in Melbourne, but Williams waited to announce her final decision to withdraw.

"Doesn't surprise me at all," said Chris Evert, an ESPN analyst and former world No. 1 who knows Williams well.

"It's easy to underestimate the demands, responsibility and love a mother feels for her child. It's a life changer.

"She really didn't have the time or the focus to commit to two to three months of intense training.

"Even if she comes back in, let's say, March, it's still a long year. Kudos to her priorities."

Williams, who reclaimed the No. 1 ranking by winning last year's Australian Open, is still ranked No. 22 and would have been seeded if she had played in Melbourne.

But, with her withdrawal, she will drop out of the official rankings altogether after the Australian Open ends on Jan 28.

She will not be seeded for other events when she returns but, according to WTA rules, she will have a protected ranking that will allow her automatic entry into eight tournaments, including two Grand Slam events, in the 12 months following her comeback.

The first significant tournament she is likely to play is the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, that begins on March 7.

Few players have successfully bounced back after giving birth, and even fewer have managed to go on to win Grand Slam titles.

Williams can look to Margaret Court, Kim Clijsters and Evonne Goolagong Cawley as those who achieved the feat as mothers.

Williams is the latest big name to withdraw from the year's first major, which will start on Jan 15, with Britain's Andy Murray (hip) and Japan's Kei Nishikori (wrist) having already said that they would not compete.

There is also uncertainty over whether former champions Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Rafa Nadal, who arrived in Melbourne yesterday, will be fit to take to the court.

NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 06, 2018, with the headline 'Williams will not defend title'. Print Edition | Subscribe