Two months ago, Serena Williams could look at the WTA landscape and justifiably sense great opportunity. Now, her radar might pick up grave danger.
"Serena is coming back to a different game," ESPN analyst Pam Shriver said. "So, the biggest question is just what this comeback is going to look like?"
It's a development that took some by surprise. If this uptick isn't common knowledge, you can pin the blame on Roger Federer. He dominated the headlines at the Australian Open, overshadowing the fact that the WTA produced one of the greatest and most competitive Grand Slam events in years.
At the end of last year, it appeared the WTA was heading for a volatile 2018. Nobody had really stepped up to take advantage of Williams' absence. (After Williams won in Melbourne, the three other majors each had a different winner, two of them first-timers.) At best, it seemed the new year would be unpredictable; at worst, the tournaments would resemble game shows in which a wheel of fortune kicked out a surprise winner each week.
A continuation of that trend clearly would have worked in Williams' favor because she's facing a hard road back. Shriver noted that Williams has looked rusty during all three of her appearances on court this year. She lost an exhibition singles match against French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko and, with partner Venus Williams, Serena fell in a Fed Cup doubles match. On Monday night, she lost in the semifinals of the Tie Break Tens event at Madison Square Garden to Shuai Zhang.
"Unless she has one of those moments when suddenly everything clicks," Shriver notes, "you have to wonder, how does she survive Indian Wells given the heat, the compressed schedule of a 64-draw, the quality of the field? It's asking a lot."
Last year, Serena underwent an emergency cesarean section and complications, including a pulmonary embolism, ensued. Although she left the tour more than a year ago, she was bedridden for six weeks following delivery of her child in early September. The tour did not pause and wait.
Caroline Wozniacki won one of the more exciting Australian Opens in recent memory and took over the top ranking in the process. Simona Halep came up just short, but showed a fighting spirit in overcoming multiple near defeats early on in the event. She did this while dealing with some breathing issues and an ugly-looking ankle injury. Others, such as Angelique Kerber, showed signs of returning to top form.
"There's definitely a higher level of tennis now," world No. 4 Elina Svitolina told ESPN.com in New York, before winning the Tie Break Tens exhibition. "In Australia, it was even more so from the physical aspect. Tennis is improving every day. If you look back even a year ago, it was different. It's always being pushed to another level."
Tracy Austin, a former No. 1 and commentator for the Tennis Channel, said the consistency of high-level play has been evident this year.
"But, there's still not a sense of order like when Serena dominated, but a lot of things finally fell into place for some players, like Woznaicki, Halep and Kerber -- players who really needed it [to] happen. That could change things."
As if to demonstrate the new stability of the WTA is for real, the form chart after the Australian Open continued to hold up through February. Petra Kvitova, who is still on the rebound from hand surgery, won in St. Petersburg and Qatar, and Svitolina, who led the WTA in titles a year ago, won the Dubai Championships.
Last year's outsiders look ready to take the next step. The question is whether Serena Williams is ready to handle it.