Serena Williams’ absence from the Australian Open not all bad news

Tennis


As last season wound down, there was endless speculation about new mother Serena Williams‘ tennis plans come mid-January. Last week, the 36-year-old postponed her return, posting on Snapchat: “After competing in Abu Dhabi I realized that although I am super close, I’m not where I personally want to be. … I don’t want to just compete, I want to do far better than that and to do so, I will need a little more time.”

Williams’ decision raises the question: Who are the big winners and losers now that she is out of the Australian Open? Let’s start with the losers:

Craig Tiley, Australian Open tournament director

Tiley was coy to the point of being deceptive late last year. He first told Melbourne’s Herald-Sun that Serena’s participation was “very likely.” He added, “She’s got her visa, she’s entered, she’s practicing and she’s probably just got to find a bit more space for a bigger entourage.”

What Tiley knew, but did not say, was that Williams did not “enter” the event in any traditional sense of the word. She was automatically entered at the cutoff date because of her high No. 22 ranking but under no obligation to play. You can’t blame a promoter from trying to sell tickets, but Tiley has a lot of egg to wipe off his face.

No. 47 Maria Sharapova

The Russian star has a career Grand Slam of her own but just two wins against Williams in 21 matches. What’s worse is that Sharapova has lost 19 straight head-to-head encounters, going all the way back to 2004. That’s an ugly stat that will soil Sharapova’s legacy, and the 30-year-old knows it. She also knows that time is running out on her hopes to score a face-saving win or two.

In Melbourne, Sharapova might have gotten a shot at Williams in an early round (and before Williams was match tough) because the American would have been a low seed and Sharapova unseeded.

Broadcasters and fans worldwide

Williams is big box-office attraction. A combination of factors has vaulted her to the very peak of pop culture. She manages to touch on all sorts of social trends while being just Serena. As entertaining as it is to watch great players ply their trade, tennis just doesn’t seem as relevant without Williams in the mix.

The USTA and American tennis in general

The U.S. women will be ably represented in Melbourne, led by Serena’s sister, Venus Williams. Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys and CoCo Vandeweghe will have a greater opportunity to shine with Serena out of the mix. But Serena is still the U.S. player most likely to inspire a young fellow countryman (male or female) to play and achieve success in tennis. By transcending tennis, she has brought legions of people to the game.

The winners

Larry Ellison

It isn’t like Ellison, the co-founder of database vendor Oracle and owner of the Indian Wells combined event, is going to be counting the tickets at the gate. He’s already worth a reported $58 billion. But Indian Wells, often described as the fifth Grand Slam, is the first big tournament after the Australian Open. Thus, the mid-March event would be an ideal place for Williams to return, and that’s where she’s rumored to return.

Williams played in the California desert in 2016 for just the second time since a supercharged controversy in 2001 that led both Williams sisters to boycott the event for a decade and a half. It was still an emotional roller coaster for Serena when she returned in 2015 and 2016. After she lost the ’16 final to Victoria Azarenka, Williams said to the media: “For me it wasn’t about winning. It was just about coming back out here and doing well.”

It’s rarely about merely “doing well” for Williams, who hasn’t won Indian Wells since 2001. Expect her to try to rectify that situation.

All-time Grand Slam singles champ Margaret Court

OK, most people agree that Serena is the best woman player ever. But Court, who straddled the amateur and pro eras, still has one more Grand Slam singles title than Williams (24-23). Court won 11 of her titles in her native Australian Grand Slam — seven of them before pros were allowed to compete in Melbourne.

But the first major of the year features bold on Williams’ résumé as well. She’s won the event seven times in a more competitive Open era. She could have tied Court, and on Court’s own turf, if she chose to play.

Venus Williams

After her win over Johanna Konta in the Wimbledon semifinals, Venus said, “Yeah, I miss [Serena] so much. Even more yesterday and today. I try to take the same courage on the court that she would have. I did think of that. I tried to do the things she would do.”

The sentiments are lovely, but the cold, hard reality is that it’s a lot easier to do those “things” on a regular basis without having to clear the Serena hurdle. Venus amply demonstrated that last year, when she reached two Grand Slam finals at age 37 and finished the year ranked No. 5, her highest since she hit the same mark in 2010. All that was made possible partly because of the absence of her younger sister for most of the year.

Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki, Angelique Kerber

The WTA rank-and-file will welcome Serena’s absence, because it signals a continuation of the parity we saw in 2017. Almost anybody can win anything. But the three players cited have extra reason to take heart. They represent familiar and by no means exclusive challenges.

Halep has been knocking at the Grand Slam door since 2014, without ever gaining admittance to the hall of champions. Now ranked No. 1, she can try again without worrying about that 1-8 record against Serena.

Wozniacki was the year-end No. 1 in 2010 and ’11 but has never won a major. She made a great comeback from assorted injuries last year, claiming her best title to date (WTA Finals). Still just 27, she’s back up to No. 3 in the world. She’s 1-10 against Serena.

Kerber fell from No. 1 to No. 22 in 2017, a victim mostly of self-imposed pressure and lack of confidence in her status. She turns 30 in just days and will have a better chance of proving 2016 was no fluke with Serena (who is 6-2 against Kerber in their careers) out of contention.

Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr.

It isn’t easy being a working mom, and it’s no picnic for the child, either. No matter how many resources Serena and her husband can muster, when a great champion is in warrior mode, tennis takes precedence over everything else. It’s just how it works.

Serena knows that as well as anyone who has ever swung a racket. Now her daughter will continue to get a far greater share of her mother’s time than she would if Serena were competing.



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