Is a shadow of a doubt creeping in over Serena Williams' comeback?
Serena Williams is back. Sort of. She returned to the court at Indian Wells two weeks ago and advanced to the third round before she fell to Venus. Then she dropped her first-round match to Naomi Osaka in Miami, a tournament she has won eight times. She's 2-2 this year -- not exactly the dominance we've come to expect from the 23-time Grand Slam champion.
Time to sound the alarms? That's a tough call.
On the one hand, yes. Serena has dominated many times when she wasn't completely healthy (Bonjour, 2015 French Open!).
On the other, no. Serena is coming back from emergency surgery and childbirth. This is a different kind of return, so it's way too early for us to drop even a single bead of sweat.
D'Arcy Maine, Katie Barnes and Susie Arth of espnW sat down and sorted through their convoluted feelings about Serena (you know, the same ones you're having?) as she continues her comeback.
Susie Arth: Should we be worried about Serena?
D'Arcy Maine: Miami was her second tournament back. She had a baby six months ago and underwent major surgery. I don't think it's realistic to think, "Now she's going to win every tournament." Last week she posted this on Instagram: "Four months ago, I couldn't walk to my mailbox, but I'll go forward and I'll get there." Perspective is so key. Four months ago she couldn't walk to her mailbox, and then she made it to the third round at Indian Wells. That's remarkable. And, by the way, she's gotten incredibly tough draws in both tournaments so far.
Susie Arth: But some people see that Serena's in a tournament and automatically think she's going to win. Her success has spawned some crazy expectations. Did she come back too soon?
Katie Barnes: Did she come back too soon to be the Serena we expect her to be? Yes. Serena is essentially using the tournaments to play her way back into shape. For me, that's such an act of vulnerability in a way that's really interesting. In terms of her career, she's done everything that she set out to do and then some. Now she wants to prove that she can be the best player in the world after having a baby. She doesn't need to prove that. She's still Serena Williams; she's still the GOAT. But I appreciate that she didn't want having a baby to be the end of her career, and it doesn't need to be, as we've seen with so many mom athletes. I don't know if there is a right time to come back. And if she waited a year, would that have made it even harder mentally?
Maine: I think that's a major part of it. She's 36, and if she were out for too long, would that make the hurdle even higher? After mentally being out of the game for so long and being in the routine of being at home with her daughter? She has made it clear she wants two more Grand Slam titles. She wants to beat Margaret Court's record, so I think that really motivates her. And the thing with Serena is, she knows she can get there. She also knows she's not in a position to win now, but she does believe eventually she can. But, again, she's 36, so I think she also knows time isn't on her side.
Barnes: I think that's what's so interesting about this period of her career -- she knows she's not 100 percent. She has a lot to lose in cultural status. Serena is this icon that transcends women's sports, and sports overall. She's in a Beyonce video! Part of that status is being infallible, invincible and unbeatable. The fact that she came back, when her body isn't 100 percent and she might not be 100 percent mentally, and she is struggling publicly, it has the chance to undercut how we see her culturally. For her to be willing to do that, to play her way back into shape so she can win another Grand Slam or two before she's done, that is risky and courageous in a way that I don't know we've seen from an athlete of her stature.
Arth: Serena hates losing, right? So, two things. Could she become too comfortable with these lower expectations for herself? Like, could she finally learn to accept losing? And is this going to make her more vulnerable in the eyes of others?
Maine: I think in the eyes of her opponents, yes. I could see that. But in the eyes of the fans? Being at Indian Wells for her first match, you could just feel the crowd energy. I've never felt anything like that before. It was so encouraging and hopeful. You could see people were inspired just seeing her walk out on the court. And, yes, her relationship with Indian Wells is complicated, but it still felt like an emotional homecoming. She doesn't have a great poker face, and you could see the emotions on her face. I think this opens her up to fans in a way we've never seen. We've thought of her like a superhero, and to see her in a vulnerable place is so different, but also moving.
Barnes: While this might make her lose that psychological edge with opponents, because she's certainly beatable right now, I think the losing might fuel her fire to get back into shape faster. If she hates it so much, it might push her to get to where she needs to be.
Maine: It's a gauge of where she stands. She knows now that she's not anywhere near 100 percent and unlikely to win a Grand Slam. But now she does have a sense of what she needs to work on to get there. And, you're right, she's Serena. She hates to lose. You could see just how upset she was with herself over losing a single point in Indian Wells.
Arth: Do you think she thought she had a chance to win the title at Indian Wells or Miami?
Barnes: She's an elite athlete. She had to know she wasn't in the best shape.
Maine: I think she thought she could make a run, but I don't think she thought she would win at Indian Wells or Miami. She's realistic and self-aware. She knows she's the best when she's at her best but also knows that she's nowhere near her best. I think she really used these two tournaments as practice in every aspect of her life, from the playing to traveling with a baby and balancing being a mom and a competitor. I think she viewed it as a dress rehearsal, where it was great if she won, but her expectations weren't so high that she was shattered by the result.
Arth: Has anyone ever been better at juggling multiple interests than Serena? Obviously motherhood is different, but throughout her career she's been criticized for not being singularly focused on tennis. ... But are you going to be satisfied if Serena never wins another major?
Barnes: Yes, because she's Serena and she's won 23 majors.
Maine: I want Serena to win 50 Grand Slams, so I'll be sad if she doesn't win another one. She doesn't need another one to validate her legacy. She is the greatest tennis player of all time, and she's changed the game in so many ways on and off the court. But I would love to see her win one -- or two -- more just because it represents so much. I think Serena is going to make such an impact on the tour, and perhaps Victoria Azarenka as well, with raising the need to support moms on and off the court. I think this is going to be part of her legacy. Beyond being the most dominant player, she's also in position to change the tour. Venus did that with pay equality, and I think Serena will do it by making it more supportive for women who want to have kids and keep playing.
Barnes: I think a lot of people can relate to her now as they watch her trying to figure out how to be a mother and how to be Serena freaking Williams at the same time. And it's like it is for most mothers: How do you live the life that you have in your new circumstances? We are being gifted this opportunity to go along with Serena on that journey. I think that's powerful, even if it's hard. But I think she's going to change the conversation around motherhood and sport because of it, and that's another gift Serena has given us.