The long-awaited return of Serena Williams began in the humble, quiet surrounds of a private tennis club in Eastbourne. After arriving in the UK within days of announcing her return to tennis, Williams opted to keep a low profile. She remained off-site even as the tournament began. She refused to conduct a single press conference.
As she trained with Frances Tiafoe on Sunday at Meads Tennis Club, her first spectators were the passers-by who just so happened to glance down at the club from the hilly road and, to their audible shock, saw one of the most famous athletes in the world staring up at them.
On Tuesday afternoon Williams finally entered the grounds of the Eastbourne International and alongside Ons Jabeur she made a winning return in her first match after a one‑year layoff. After a rusty start, the pair recovered from a set and a break down to defeat Marie Bouzkova and Sara Sorribes Tormo 6-2, 3-6, 13-11.
It was not until Tuesday afternoon that Williams and Jabeur met as partners and trained together for the first time and it showed. Aspects of Williams’s game were naturally coated with rust after such a long layoff and Jabeur, in the singles form of her life, is less sure on the doubles court. They were flattened early on by their solid, assertive opponents. But as the match endured Williams steadily improved. Her serve rose to its formidable best and those essential little steps around the ball returned.
After trailing a break, Williams served out the second set with a vintage play. First she uncorked an angled backhand passing shot winner while on the run, punctuating her shot with an elongated grunt, then she shut the door with a cold-blooded ace.
As the tiebreak began, Williams had awoken and she was rock solid from the baseline, but it was Jabeur who landed the decisive point, feathering a spectacular drop shot winner to bring up match point, and the crowd to its feet, before they took it. As they celebrated, Jabeur and Williams pointed at each other, imploring the crowd to soak it up.
“It was so much fun,” said Jabeur. “I was nervous before playing with such a legend, she made me good on the court, even when I made mistakes she kept encouraging me.”
This is a step forward for Williams, but the future remains unclear. She has not competed for 51 weeks after slipping in the first round of last year’s Wimbledon and injuring a hamstring, forcing her to retire from the tournament. Over the past year, she has remained in the public eye, but her absence from the tour at 40 years old led many to wonder if she had competed for the last time.
Such thoughts have evidently been in her mind, too. “I’m literally taking it one day at a time,” she said. “I really took my time with my hamstring injury so I’m just not making a ton of decisions after this.”
Pushed on whether she would fully return to the tour in 2023 if her body is healthy, her indecision about her future was clear. “I don’t know. I can’t answer that. I love tennis and I love playing, or else I wouldn’t be out here, right? But I also love what I do off the court, what I’ve built with Serena Ventures. It’s interesting, so it’s a lot.”
As she nursed her hamstring and then detached herself from the sport, Williams admitted that there were times over the past year when she questioned whether she was still capable of playing: “I would be dishonest if I said I wasn’t. Now my body feels great. It’s doubles, I’m only playing half the court. I’ve been doing a lot of training and it definitely feels good.”
She is back for another attempt at her 24th grand slam title. This was just the start, her first small steps back into the sport after such a long layoff, but it remains to be seen where she is heading.
Tuesday was a tremendous day for British players in Eastbourne. Katie Boulter, a former top‑100 player still trying to make her way back after a variety of injuries, pulled off the biggest win of her career as she defeated the No 7 Karolina Pliskova 1-6, 6-4, 6-4 to reach the round of 16. The No 169 Jodie Burrage ended the day by upsetting Paula Badosa, the world No 4, 6-4, 6-3.
Meanwhile, Ryan Peniston continued his breakout grass season by upsetting Holger Rune, the 8th seed, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-1.