Serena Williams has spoken out about the “ups and downs” she faced during her year away from competitive tennis but insists she’s now focused and ready for her quest to once more dominate her sport.
Speaking ahead of her comeback at the Fed Cup in Asheville, North Carolina, where the United States begns the defence of its crown against an unfancied Netherlands team on Saturday, the 36-year-old said she had the benefit of a new outlook following the birth of her baby daughter Alexis Olympia in September.
“There’s been a lot of ups and downs in the practice,” Williams told reporters. “It also gives me another view, it’s almost relaxing for me as I have nothing to prove. Again, just fighting against all odds to be out there again, to be competing again.”
Some of that struggle was apparent during an exhibition match at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi in December, where she lost to French Open Champion Jelena Ostapenko.
Williams shared sets with Ostapenko before losing a super tiebreaker and appeared a little slow on her feet, even as she played some fine shots.
She had initially targeted last month’s Australian Open crown for a defence of her 2017 crown, but abandoned that goal after declaring she was not “where I personally want to be.”
Perhaps wary of setting another ambitious target, Williams refused to be drawn on whether she had set her sights on the year’s remaining Grand Slams – the French Open, Wimbledon and US Open.
For now, she appears to be easing her way in and was not named as the United States’ first or second singles player in a powerful US team that includes elder sister Venus, world number 17 CoCo Vandeweghe and world number 62 Lauren Davis.
That means she isn’t scheduled to play in either of the singles matches on Saturday which are followed by reverse singles on Sunday, but will instead play in a doubles tie with team-mate Davis against Lesley Kerkhove and Demi Schuurs.
US captain Kathy Rinaldi did not rule out a change on the second day.
“As far as the lineup, we have the lineup set for tomorrow, then of course we’ll wait and see how tomorrow goes, then we’ll make our adjustments, if any,” she said.
Serena boasts a strong Fed Cup record, with a 13-0 singles mark that includes winning 26 out of her 28 sets as well as a 3-1 doubles record.
Williams’ comeback run comes as another titan of the sport — Roger Federer — is enjoying a late-career resurgence, also aged 36.
With three singles Slam titles over the past two years, Federer is now intent on reclaiming his world number one ranking, and becoming the oldest man to do so.
“Roger Federer is a really great tennis player,” Williams said of the Swiss great.
“I don’t know any tennis player that has not been inspired by him. I definitely have. Yeah, just trekking on, we keep doing the same thing.”
While Williams is bidding to emulate Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong and Kim Clijsters in winning a Grand Slam title after having a child, she acknowledged the path had not been straightforward and credited her sister with making it possible.
“I have a great partner and relationship with Venus. She’s been really, really positive,” she said.
“There’s moments that have just been hard, getting back out there doing it every day. You have to get used to that, get in the rhythm of that.”
Also credited for a newfound sense of zen was her family life with baby Alexis and husband Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit whom she wed in November.
“It’s probably been the most fun of my life,” she said.
And though she insists she has nothing left to prove, one professional goal eludes her – Margaret Court’s all-time record for Slam singles titles of 24.
“It goes unsaid 25 is obviously something that I would love, but I’d hate to limit myself,” she joked.
Zverev produced some superb tennis to down Kyrgios 6-2, 7-6 (3), 6-2 in one hour, 48 minutes and put Germany into a quarter-final against either Spain or Great Britain.
“(To win) against a very strong Australian team makes us very confident for the next round, for the upcoming years,” German captain Michael Kohlmann said.
“We showed we have a lot of good players, a lot of strong players.
“We showed that we are able to go further than this.”
Zverev served beautifully throughout, only facing two break points in the match, both at the end of the second set and both of which he saved.
He also returned well, getting many of Kyrgios’s thunderbolts back in play and then winning the battle from the back of the court.
“It’s awesome, it’s an amazing feeling and without my teammates it wouldn’t have been possible,” Zverev said.
“Obviously we’re happy but hopefully this is just the beginning for us.”
Kyrgios went into the match full of expectation after an impressive win over Jan-Lennard Struff in Friday’s opening singles.
Zverev, on the other hand, had looked out of touch on Friday and was pushed for almost four hours before seeing off 18-year-old Alex de Minaur in five sets.
But following the Germans’ win in the doubles on Saturday to give them a 2-1 lead, all the pressure was on Kyrgios, who had to win to keep the tie alive.
The mercurial Australian opened brilliantly, holding his serve to love much to the delight of the boisterous home crowd.
But that was almost as good as it got for the Australian team, as Kyrgios lost two of his next three service games to surrender the opening set in just 23 minutes.
Kyrgios appeared troubled by an elbow problem in the first set and it became more noticeable in the second, the Australian often shaking his right arm between points.
He served better in the second set, firing down eight aces, but at 4-3 he had a medical timeout for treatment on his arm.
The Australian continued to serve well and had two set points on Zverev’s serve at 6-5, but the German saved both then played a superb tiebreak to take a stranglehold on the rubber.
Once Zverev broke to go ahead 3-1 the result was never really in doubt and at 2-5, Kyrgios was broken again to give Germany the tie.
Kyrgios said he felt a problem with his elbow after Friday’s match.
“It obviously affected me a lot,” a downcast Kyrgios said.
“My serve is my biggest strength — I mean I thought he played great today — but my serve was not really there and that affects the rest of my game.
“It’s tough to go out there and not be able to put in your best performance.”
Novak Djokovic hosed down suggestions he is pushing to create an independent players union to fight for even more prize money, and denied reports it could lead to tournament boycotts.
British media said the Serbian 12-time Grand Slam winner, president of the ATP Tour player council, had raised the subject at a mandatory player meeting in Melbourne on Friday.
The London Times said he took the stage and suddenly asked that ATP officials and any non-players leave the room, bringing in an Australian professor with specialist knowledge of workplace law.
According to Britain’s Telegraph newspaper, Djokovic, who has earned $110m in prize money, then outlined his argument that the Grand Slams only pay out about seven per cent of their income.
It said he compared this to American basketball, which pays about 50 per cent.
Some reports said the dispute could lead to tournament boycotts if players didn’t get more money, but Djokovic said this was not true.
“That wasn’t a subject I raised, no,” he said after powering into the Australian Open second round in his first tournament match since an elbow injury forced him out of Wimbledon six months ago.
“You’re talking about boycott, you’re talking about radical decisions to make and move so we can get financial compensations the way we deserve it. But there was no talks about that,” he insisted.
The Times said any new union would break away from the present set-up under the ATP, the men’s governing body, which jointly represents the interests of both the players and tournaments.
The ATP refused to comment to AFP.
At the players meeting Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley reportedly outlined plans to boost prize money at the opening Grand Slam of the year from $55m to $100m over the next five years.
Djokovic said “everybody’s trying to do their best” when asked about players getting a bigger slice of Grand Slam revenues.
“I mean, we are here at the Australian Open, and they always try to compensate the players in a best possible way,” he said.
“Things are going in the right direction.”
He added that while he was ATP player council president, “I don’t sit on these negotiation tables”.
“Obviously before you get anything to be voted on the board, it has to go through council. It’s not only me that makes some calls, far from that.
“I’m just glad that I’m part of it, that I can contribute to a better sport today, and the future. Hopefully the next generation will even have a better sport.”
Kevin Anderson, who is vice-president of the ATP player council, was cited by British media as saying: “I think there’s a big case to be made as far as percentage goes.
“If you see an NBA (basketball) player or an NFL (American football) player you think seven figures in their bank account and I don’t think that’s the case even for some players who make the main draw at Grand Slams.”
Maria Sharapova acknowledged Grand Slam revenues were growing and said after her Australian Open match on Tuesday that: “I do believe that the players will ultimately earn more.”