ASHEVILLE, N.C. — It was fitting she was the last player announced. As Serena Williams strolled toward the podium for the draw of the 2018 Fed Cup, the crowd that showed up Friday at the U.S. Cellular Center rose in unison.
As the fans clapped loudly in one instant, while vigorously snapping rapid-fire photos, Williams soaked it all in and smiled.
All eyes will be on her this weekend as Team USA takes on the Netherlands in Asheville, North Carolina, to see how far she’s come since becoming a mother.
Four different women have won major tournaments since Williams played in her last event, the 2017 Australian Open, where she beat sister Venus in the final.
A sign that the game has moved on without her?
Hardly. Serena is still the top attraction in her sport. But a look at her limited mobility as she took swings this week made it clear it’s going to take some time.
Williams won’t carry any type of load (or pressure) this weekend, as she is scheduled to play only a doubles match alongside Lauren Davis on Sunday. It’s like giving Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander the ball in the last inning of a 10-run game.
Venus, who did not play in the 2017 Fed Cup, and CoCo Vandeweghe, who last year led the United States to its first title in 17 years, will play singles.
For Serena, this will be her first appearance since losing an exhibition match in Dubai against Jelena Ostapenko at the end of last year, a performance that showed her she wasn’t ready to defend her Australian Open title.
“It’s almost relaxing for me because I have nothing to prove,” Serena Williams said. “Just fighting against all the odds to be out there and be competing again.”
The key word there is compete — not to be confused with “dominate.” Getting back to top form is going to be a grind.
It’s going to take time for Williams, who is playing her first Fed Cup event since 2015, to get focused on her longer-term goals.
“Right now, my main goal is to just stay in the moment,” Williams said.
But Williams, a 23-time major winner, did say the pursuit of the all-time Slam record still motivates her. Right now, she trails Margaret Court by one.
We’ll soon see how that endeavor is impacted by motherhood. For much of her career, Williams’ entire focus has been tennis. For those who follow her on Instagram, they know that being a mother to 5-month-old Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. has her fully engaged.
“It’s an amazing journey — probably been the most fun of my life,” Williams said. “It’s a totally new experience, and I love motherhood and I look forward to just being the best mom I can be.”
If anyone can combine being the best mom she can be with being the best tennis player, it’s Serena. She’s a fierce competitor and is embarking on this tennis journey only because she still thinks she can return as the game’s most dominant player.
There is precedence. Margaret Court gave birth to her first child in March 1972 and then won the last three Grand Slams in 1973. Kim Clijsters also won three majors after giving birth, while Evonne Goolagong took home two.
Shortly after the draw was announced, Williams gathered to take a group picture with her teammates. Suddenly music started playing through the arena’s PA system, and she instinctively started to bounce to the beat.
The song: Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls).”
Williams hopes to again run the world of tennis, win more majors and surpass Court. But again, it’s going to take time.
For now, she’s just soaking in the journey. The quest to reclaim the throne can wait.