LONDON — Now that she’s “Mrs. Williams,” per the Wimbledon chair umpire, now that she’s a mother, now that she is back on tour, Serena Williams is ready to rediscover her full complement of shots and full ability to dominate.
“Not only do I expect to win,” she said Monday after picking up a victory in her first match at the All England Club in two years, “I expect to win emphatically.”
Williams found herself in a bit of a jam against 105th-ranked Arantxa Rus of the Netherlands, down by a break in the second set on a windy afternoon. And then, a five-game run and 25 minutes later, Williams had completed the 7-5, 6-3 result.
“I have such high expectations of myself,” said Williams, whose 23 Grand Slam singles championships include seven at Wimbledon, so she was seeded 25th even though her ranking is 181st following an extended absence. “I don’t go out there expecting to `do well’ or `see what happens.’ That’s just not me.”
Day 1 at the grass-court Grand Slam tournament featured some mild surprises, such as U.S. Open champion and French Open runner-up Sloane Stephens’ third first-round exit in the past five majors, and losses by No. 5 Elina Svitolina and No. 6 Grigor Dimitrov (to three-time major champion Stan Wawrinka).
Also drawing attention was eight-time Wimbledon champ Roger Federer’s new clothing sponsorship, during his easy-as-can-be victory at Centre Court.
Nothing feels as significant in tennis today, though, as what Williams does – because of what she’s accomplished in the past and because of what she’s trying to accomplish in the present, with a baby in tow. Not that she’s unique: Other mothers who won Monday included 57th-ranked Tatjana Maria of Germany, who beat Svitolina 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-1; former No. 1 and two-time Australian Open titlist Victoria Azarenka of Belarus and 120th-ranked qualifier Evgeniya Rodina of Russia.
“The tougher balance, for me, is to be able to spend time away from my son and be OK with taking, sometimes, time for myself, which is a struggle sometimes, because I really want to spend every second with him,” said Azarenka, who faces No. 7 seed Karolina Pliskova next.
Williams has won 15 matches in a row at Wimbledon, a streak that encompasses titles in 2015 and 2016, although Williams said that hadn’t occurred to her until a reporter mentioned it. The 36-year-old American sat out the tournament last year while pregnant; she gave birth to a daughter in September and married Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian in November (hence the change from “Miss Williams” over the arena microphone).
This is only Williams’ second major tournament in nearly 1 1/2 years. She returned at the French Open in May, and won three matches there before withdrawing with an injured pectoral muscle. She went a few weeks without even attempting to serve, while healing, and insisted she wasn’t entirely sure how she’d fare with that stroke Monday.
Rus rolled her eyes at that notion after the match, saying: “I mean, she doesn’t start a tournament if she’s not prepared.”
Maybe so, but Williams double-faulted on the initial point, and dropped in some offerings in the low 80s mph, rather slow for her.
Then she revved it up, getting to 115 mph in each set.
“Serving good,” Rus observed. “Hard.”
Still, Williams had her issues. She lost her footing and tumbled at one point. She got upset by a line judge’s mistaken call that led to the replay of a point she should have won but instead lost. She was down love-30 on her serve and trailing 3-1 in the second set after a run of 7 of 8 points for Rus.
“Almost,” Rus lamented later, “like a double-break.”
Almost, but not quite.
Williams came back to hold there and wouldn’t drop another game the rest of the way, dealing better with the wind that whipped this way and that at No. 1 Court and marking terrific passing shots with those customary cries of “Come on!”
Her sister, five-time Wimbledon champion and 2017 finalist Venus, had far more trouble across the grounds at No. 2 Court, slipping to the turf a couple of times and barely moving on with a 6-7 (3), 6-2, 6-1 win against Johanna Larsson of Sweden, who dropped to 0-8 at the All England Club.
The Williams siblings aren’t playing doubles in this tournament, the way they did at Roland Garros, and that’s a good thing for Mom: It gives her more time with her child.
“I felt guilty,” Williams said about her time in Paris. “I was like, `I haven’t seen Olympia.’ Like, `What am I doing?’ … Now that I’m not playing doubles in this event, I have the day off, I think that will help.”
It might take time to figure out how to balance her job with her career, just like for many a parent.
“I’m adjusting well. I spend so much time with her every single day. We, like, literally do everything. I really don’t like being away from her,” Williams said. “I also think it’s healthy, in a way, for me to do what I need to do, be that working mom, then go back home and be the mom.”