Signs indicated that one of the greatest players of all time had quietly slipped into retirement without a well-deserved farewell.
But on Tuesday, Serena Williams was back on the tennis court — nearly a year since her last competitive match, and just weeks after many predicted that the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion would never play again.
Williams took center stage in Devonshire Park in Eastbourne, which is usually the center of the cultural scene in the sleepy seaside town of Sussex and home to a number of theatres.
The 40-year-old American teamed up with Tunisian Anas Jaber on Eastbourne’s Doubles and Husband They won their opening match In an entertaining evening.
Next week, Williams hopes to play in the singles at Wimbledon, where she has won seven of her major titles.
Afterward, she said she “definitely” had moments of doubt about whether she would ever play again.
“You know what, I literally take it one day at a time,” she said.
“I really took my time with my hamstring injury, so I don’t make a lot of decisions after that.”
Why was there speculation that she might have quietly retired
In April, when her longtime coach Patrick Muratoglu began working with former world number one Simona Halep, Williams had not played competitively for nine months.
She was in the middle of her forty-first year. There was little evidence that she was training.
Further fuel was added to speculation about the American’s future by recalling her comments at the 2021 Australian Open, where she said: “If I say goodbye one day, I won’t tell anyone.”
Later that day, in an Instagram story with NFL star Aaron Rodgers, she got into a conversation she was preparing for Wimbledon.
But, nevertheless, the announcement that she’s headed to Britain to play – an Instagram post showing her feet on the grass with the caption “SW at SW19. It’s a date.” – It was not seen as a given.
“I think it surprised everyone,” said Spaniard Paula Padusa, the world number four.
“It feels so good to have her back and it really surprised me how she had and still has that hunger for the game. I think it’s a huge inspiration.
“I hope you can come back for more time.”
what were you doing?
The biography on her Instagram page simply says: “I am the mother of Olympia.”
The point mom takes up a lot of Williams’ time these days, but she’s also been busy working on her business interests outside of tennis.
A clothing line called “Serena” launched earlier this year, while another part of her fashion portfolio is a jewelry brand.
Williams is among many prominent supporters of Angel City Women’s Soccer, a women’s soccer club that also includes Billie Jean King and actresses Natalie Portman, Eva Longoria and Jennifer Garner among its investors.
Earlier this year, it raised $111 million to launch a venture capital fund, Serena Ventures, which invests in entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds.
When asked if she sees herself playing next year, she said, “I don’t know, I can’t answer that. But I love tennis and I love playing, otherwise I wouldn’t be here, right?”
“But I also love what I do off the field, what I’ve built with Serena Ventures, it’s fun. So, it’s a lot.”
How Williams’ arrival left “Starstroke” in Eastbourne
After Monday’s training session was called off, Williams arrived at Devonshire Park’s training grounds at around 14:30 BST and word quickly spread about what was going on.
In a far corner of the site, Williams put on her tennis shoes and stepped onto a court in the shadow of the stage center in Eastbourne.
The stage was set up – for rehearsal at least.
Legions of tall lenses pointed in the direction of Williams. Tons of camera phones were pressed into the grid between the stadium and the fans.
Jaber, who said earlier in the week that she “didn’t know” why Williams chose to play with her, appeared soon after.
The duo had “talked quite a bit” previously, adding the third seed in the world singles, but “never talked about tennis.”
After exchanging a warm handshake and warmer smiles, the duo staggered with a light blow and practiced some aerial and hit some serve before collaborating on the same side of the net for the first time.
The chemistry started to build as they played some points against Williams coach Eric Hechtman and his hitting partner Jarmer Jenkins.
When the real curtain was lifted on Central Court in Eastbourne, the duo also grew in cohesion and confidence.
On why she chose Gaber, Williams said: “When we saw her name it immediately seemed like, OK, it would be great to play with her.
“I love her game, I love her style of play. She has a great shot, obviously a great shot, and she has had two exceptional years.
“It made a lot of sense, it was a good solution for me.”
The crowd in Eastbourne definitely agreed. Hundreds remained until the end of the game, which ended at 20:27 local time on a summer evening that got colder as the game progressed.
“This was definitely worth sticking with,” said one ecstatic fan in front of the media benches. “What a night.”
She wasn’t the only fan who made her day out.
When Williams left the training ground, returning to the conservatory usually used for cabaret events and conventions, she signed some autographs for a lucky few.
One was eight-year-old Eden John, who plays tennis every day at her club in Eastbourne and has pictures on her bedroom wall for Williams.
“You should have photographed my face the first time you saw it!” She said before pulling on her face that conveyed how fascinated she was to see Williams in the flesh.
Eden’s father Andre added: “She was a bit surprised, she couldn’t look at her when she was hitting. Seeing a legend like this in our backyard is unbelievable.”
Now they’ll get another chance when Williams and Jaber return to Devonshire Park for a second act on Wednesday.
The show continues to Williams. But to what extent? Even she doesn’t know.
“I can’t answer if I will participate next year,” she said. “But I love tennis and I love playing otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”