Serena Williams returns to tennis after a year-long absence on Saturday, with all eyes on the former world number one as she sets out on her quest to reclaim her position at the pinnacle of her sport.
The 36-year-old superstar has not played a competitive match since winning the last of her 23 Grand Slam titles at the Australian Open last year, where she was in the early stages of pregnancy.
Since giving birth to her daughter Alexis Olympia in September, Williams has played only once, in an exhibition match in Abu Dhabi in December, where she lost to French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko.
Williams had initially targeted last month’s Australian Open for a comeback, but abandoned that ambitious goal after declaring she was not “where I personally want to be”.
Instead, she will get her first taste of competitive tennis when the United States kick off the defence of their Fed Cup crown against the Netherlands at Asheville, North Carolina.
Williams heads a powerful US team that includes her elder sister, and eighth-ranked, Venus, world number 17 CoCo Vandeweghe as well as world number 62 Lauren Davis.
The tie opens with two singles rubbers on Saturday followed by reverse singles on Sunday, with doubles as the fifth rubber if required.
Targeting 25th Slam
US captain Kathy Rinaldi said the Fed Cup was the perfect venue for Williams to launch her comeback.
“She’s been out, becoming a new mom, and she’s looking to get back into playing,” Rinaldi said.
“We saw her play an exhibition at the end of last year, but this is a great way for her to start the year and get a couple matches or a match behind her.
“She enjoys Fed Cup, and Serena and Venus have been extremely supportive, and it happened to be a good fit. It’s an honour to have them on the team. We had a great team last year at every tie and again this year starting off.”
Williams will use the match as preparation for her full-fledged return to the WTA circuit at the March 5-18 BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells before heading to Florida for the Miami Open.
Williams will be bidding to emulate Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong, and Kim Clijsters, who all won Grand Slam titles after having children when she returns to the circuit.
She is currently one title short of matching Court’s all-time record for Slam singles titles of 24 — a mark she is determined to better.
“Maybe this goes without saying, but it needs to be said in a powerful way: I absolutely want more Grand Slams,” she told Vogue in an interview last month. “I’m well aware of the record books, unfortunately. It’s not a secret that I have my sights on 25.”
Williams, who married Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian in November, said being a mother may boost her quest, believing that it has given her a more relaxed perspective on her profession.
“Actually, I think having a baby might help. When I’m too anxious, I lose matches, and I feel like a lot of that anxiety disappeared when Olympia was born,” Williams said.
“Knowing I’ve got this beautiful baby to go home to makes me feel like I don’t have to play another match. I don’t need the money or the titles or the prestige. I want them, but I don’t need them. That’s a different feeling for me.”