To play the French Open or not? Serena Williams has a big decision to make

Serena Williams has lost her past two matches and has not taken a set in either. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Serena Williams' decision to pull out of the Madrid Open on Thursday morning raised eyebrows and begged for more answers.

While critics have praised HBO's "Being Serena" documentary for the "transparency" of its subject, that clarity has been lacking when it comes to our knowledge of the state of her tennis game.

Williams issued no official statement, leaving it to Madrid tournament organizer Manolo Santana to break the news that she was not ready to compete.

In some ways, this is not a big deal. Since when did Serena, now a mother for seven months, need a full month to prepare for an upcoming Grand Slam event -- in this case, the pending French Open? Besides, the Italian Open, a tournament Williams has won in the past, comes right after Madrid. It offers yet another major tuneup for Roland Garros.

But if pulling out of Madrid signals that Williams will likely give the heave-ho to her entire clay-court schedule, it could be a very significant, perhaps devastating, move.

From the moment Williams left the tour early in 2017 to have a child, it was clear that her next best chance win a major would be at the 2018 Wimbledon. But those odds would improve significantly if she decides to play the French Open and get a few wins under her belt.

The problem is, Williams has never been about "a few wins" or taking baby steps. She's the queen of the Big Ask. But it would be flirting with disaster if she were to enter Wimbledon without having played any competitive matches since the Miami Open in March. As friendly as the grass surface is to her serve and that explosive game in general, the physical and emotional demands of match play at Wimbledon can't be simulated in practice, not even in the tuneup grass events that will be on tap.

We aren't sure how the setbacks Williams suffered in her return during the spring hard-court season affected her psyche. Her pride surely took a hit; was it severe enough to make her leery of the surface that's been most challenging for her, clay? Williams might choose to bail on Roland Garros, where a win seems unlikely, to keep her stature from further eroding. But putting all her eggs in the Wimbledon basket entails significant risk.

The physical demands of playing high-pressure matches on grass are formidable, especially if the All England Club doesn't manage to find a way to seed Williams. It's a lunging, crouching, stretching game.

By contrast, clay is forgiving, easy on the joints and muscles, slow enough to encourage rallies that allow you to get in touch with all the dimensions of your game, to experiment. It's the best surface for easing yourself back into the flow of competition. It's the warm bath compared to the cold shower of faster-paced tennis.

True, grass, not clay, is Williams' best surface. But one of her great triumphs was her late-career mastery of the red dirt. Williams could go in with Wimbledon in the back of her mind and moderate expectations in the front. It would be nice to wipe away the bad taste left by those back-to-back losses, at Indian Wells and Miami, before the Wimbledon pressure kicks in. Who wants to go into Wimbledon with those as the last two entries on the W-L record?

It might be a good time to lob in a call to fellow double-digit Grand Slammer Novak Djokovic. Although his struggles were of a different, lower order of magnitude, his response to his own crisis was interesting. He returned prematurely from elbow surgery and had an even worse March than Williams, losing in the first round on the hard courts of Indian Wells and Miami.

"I might have rushed my decision to play again a little bit [in March] because I missed matches, I missed playing," Djokovic told the media. "I know that I can play much better than that, but I couldn't. I just wasn't ready. And that's it."

Williams wasn't ready in March, either. But where Djokovic has soldiered on during the Euroclay season, trying to get his legs and mind in the right place, Williams withdrew and exists in a cone of silence.

Officials at Roland Garros hold their breath, while her Wimbledon fate could very well depend on her decision to tackle the dirt.