Serena Williams' Big Return to the Courts: A Look at Her Road Back to Tennis

Inside the tennis pro's milestone-filled year off the court

By Billy Nilles Feb 10, 2018 12:00 PMTags
Serena WilliamsTom Dulat/Getty Images

A legend is about to return to the tennis court.

After a year full of personal highs that kept her off the court, Serena Williams, a clear GOAT in the world of tennis if there ever was one, is returning to the action for her first match in over a year with this weekend's Fed Cup in Asheville, N.C. And while she won't be making her grand return in any of Saturday's singles matches, delaying her appearance on the court until Sunday, Feb. 11 when she partners with Lauren Davis to take on Lesley Kerkhove and Demi Schuurs of the Netherlands in a doubles match, the wait for fans will be nothing compared to the last time they saw Williams slay the women's singles competition at the 2017 Australian Open over a year ago.

Serena Williams' Baby Girl Alexis Olympia's Cutest Photos

After Williams proved victorious in Melbourne, beating her sister Venus Williams and surpassing Steffi Graff's Open Era record with her 23rd Grand Slam singles title, ensuring her return to No. 1 ranking, she began her surprising retreat from the sport that made her a superstar. She withdrew from the upcoming Indian Wells and Miami Opens, citing a knee injury. "Sadly, I have to withdraw from the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells and the Miami Open," she said that March. "I have not been able to train due to my knees and am disappointed I cannot be there. I will keep moving forward and continue to be positive. I look forward to being back as soon as I can."

However, sports fans were thrown for quite a loop when Williams revealed that she was 20 weeks pregnant just a month later, breaking the news that she and then-fiancé, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, were expecting via Snapchat. And yes, for all the mathematicians at home, that does mean that she won the Australian Open while roughly eight weeks pregnant. Her impending maternity leave wouldn't be the first break from tennis that Williams had taken in her career, and she certainly wouldn't the first female tennis champ to leave the tour to start a family only and return successfully, but when you're riding high at No. 1, there's always trepidation about losing your momentum.

"It's hard to figure out what the end of your tennis career should look like," she told Vogue in August. "I used to think I'd want to retire when I have kids, but no. I'm definitely coming back. Walking out there and hearing the crowd, it may seem like nothing. But there's no better feeling in the world."

After all, there was still one major record looming in the not-too-far-off distance, just begging Williams to smash it: Margaret Court's 24 Grand Slam titles. "Obviously, if I have a chance to go out there and catch up with Margaret, I am not going to pass that up," she told the magazine. "If anything, this pregnancy has given me a new power."

A plan was set: She would return to the court in January to defend her Australian Open title.  "It's the most outrageous plan," she admitted. "I just want to put that out there. That's, like, three months after I give birth. I'm not walking anything back, but I'm just saying it's pretty intense."


The very next month, on September 1, to be exact, she and Ohanian welcomed baby Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. into the world. And that plan to return to Melbourne? Well, it went out the window. Though we—and maybe even the pro herself—wouldn't know that until the new year.

As she adjusted to motherhood, something she'd just admitted to Vogue the month prior that she worried she wasn't quite ready for just yet ("That's something I have to work on," she told the publication. "I'm so used to me-me-me, taking care of my health, my body, my career. I always ask, 'Am I going to be good enough?'"), it was clear that she was more ready than she might've thought.

Mel Barlow & Co. / Allan Zepeda /

In an open letter to her mother Oracene Price published on The Washington Post's website, she thanked her mama for preparing her for motherhood simply through leading by example. "Thank you for being the role model I needed to endure all the hardships that I now regard as a challenges–ones that I enjoy. I hope to teach my baby Alexis Olympia the same, and have the same fortitude you have had," she wrote, while also remarking at the similarities she noticed in her own little one. "She has my arms and legs! My exact same strong, muscular, powerful, sensational arms and body," the athlete continued. "I don't know how I would react if she has to go through what I've gone through since I was a 15 year old and even to this day."

Becoming a mother and stepping away from the court while ranked as No. 1 wouldn't be the only major changes Williams faced in 2017, however. There was also the small matter of making it official with baby daddy Ohanian. Nearly a year after getting engaged, and just two months after becoming parents, the happy couple tied the knot in front of family and friends, with a star-studded guest list that included Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian, Eva Longoria, Ciara, Russell Wilson, La La Anthony, Anna Wintour, Kelly Rowland, and more, on November 16 in New Orleans. And by all accounts, it was a fairy tale evening.

Serena Williams and Alexis Ohanian's Wedding Album

"Serena loves Disney and Alexis and Serena danced their first dance song to 'Tale as Old as Time.' I think that song is really significant because that song's from Beauty and the Beast and they come from two such different worlds and I think that was the theme of the evening," Brides Executive Director Lisa Gooder revealed to E! News. "There were a lot of athletes and sports stars blended with the tech community from Alexis."

The evening, which also included a surprise performance from R&B group New Edition (and a choreographed dance courtesy of Williams and Ohanian) and a carousel, hit its high point when the pair shared their personalized vows. "Alexis really was amazing during the ceremony. The couple wrote their own vows," Gooder said. "They were super personal and he really delivered and said 'You are my Queen and we already have our Princess.'  Everybody was crying. There wasn't a dry eye in the house."

"I never wanted a traditional wedding," Williams told Vogue in January. "I wanted a strong wedding." By all accounts, she got it.

With a luxe tropical honeymoon in the Bahamas out of the way, it was time to turn her eyes back to the prize: Getting back on the court and reclaiming her top spot. Despite being absent from the game for nearly the entirety of 2017, she still ended the season ranked No. 22 in the world. However impressive that may be, she still faced a long climb back to No. 1 ahead of her. "Maybe this goes without saying, but it needs to be said in a powerful way: I absolutely want more Grand Slams," she told Vogue. "I'm well aware of the record books, unfortunately. It's not a secret that I have my sights on 25."

This time, though, she felt she might just have the ace up her sleeve she'd been waiting for all her life. "And 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," she continued. "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."

Serena Williams' Best Looks

However, her re-ascension would have to start after January's Australian Open. As Williams revealed that month, her training after giving birth to Alexis Olympia was delayed thanks to a terrifying medical ordeal that befell her just after her emergency C-section. The next day, Williams' doctors found several small blood clots in her lungs, which caused coughing, which, in turn, caused her C-section wound to re-open. As she went back in for surgery, doctors found that a large hematoma had flooded her abdomen, making a filter in her vein necessary to prevent more clots from forming. All told, Williams spent her first six weeks as a mom bed-ridden. After losing an exhibition match in late December at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi, Williams came to the realization that she just wasn't ready to defend her title in Melbourne.

"After performing in my first match after giving birth I realized that although I am super close I'm not where I personally want to be," Williams wrote in a statement posted to her Snapchat. "My coach and team always said 'Only go to tournaments when you are prepared to go all the way.' With that being said I am disappointed to say I've decided not to compete in the Australian Open this year."

She concluded her note, "However, the memory of last year's Open is one that I will carry with me and Olympia and I look forward to coming back again. I appreciate the support and understanding of my fans and everyone at the Australian Open."

With her eyes on Indian Wells in March, this weekend's Fed Cup, her first since 2015, is the official start of Williams' rebound—albeit one that, just a day prior to beginning, was delayed a bit further when it was revealed that she wouldn't be participating in any singles matches today, as originally thought. "This is definitely the start of a long process," Williams told the crowd of reporters in Asheville. "I'm ready and excited to be chosen to the team. I'm very happy to be here. Physically I feel good. Every day I get better and stronger."

Whatever the delay, there's no doubt that Williams is back and ready to fight.

"It's interesting," she told Vogue. "There hasn't been a clear number one since I was there. It will be cool to see if I get there again, to what I call my spot—where I feel I belong. I don't play to be the second best or the third best. If there's no clear number one, it's like, yeah, I can get my spot back. But if there is a clear number one, that's cool, too, because it's like, yeah, I'm gonna come for you."

We can't wait to watch.