Serena Williams made her Key Biscayne comeback on Tuesday.
OK, so it was on a clay court, playing fun and friendly patty-cake mixed doubles before an intimate, champagne-sipping crowd with no prize money on the line.
Still, it was affirming to see Williams wielding a racket, whipping her serve, slashing a few groundstrokes, performing sleight-of-hand tricks at the net.
And laughing. Bending over in laughter. Throwing her head back in laughter. Tossing her long braids in laughter. Pressing her fist against her mouth to try to put a cork on another spout of laughter.
Serena is back. Watch out. She’s a new mother who says she feels more relaxed as a tennis player because she has a baby back home. Who needs another trophy when you could spend the whole day giggling with and gazing into the eyes of a wondrous being who lives only in the moment.
Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. is 6 months old. She could make her mom better.
When Serena is at her peak, what is the only thing that prevents her from winning? The hectoring voice inside her head that sounds exactly like her voice. Or the snide devil on her shoulder that looks exactly like her. Serena beats Serena. Rarely does an opponent defeat Serena.
So there she was Tuesday, warming up for the Miami Open that she’s won eight times, playing a match in Key Biscayne for the first time since the 2016 tournament. She was utterly relaxed. Her joy was infectious as she played in Cliff Drysdale’s ninth annual All-Star Tennis Charity Event at the Ritz-Carlton with Simona Halep, Frances Tiafoe and former pro Darren Cahill, filling in for Nick Kyrgios, who did not want to aggravate an ailment before his opening match.
Williams was running late because she got stuck in an elevator. The old Williams, diva Williams, would have arrived in a snit. Eye contact would have made you look away to avoid those steely daggers. But on this humid evening, Williams paused to sign autographs and pose for photos with the people raising funds for the ACEing Autism tennis program for autistic children.
The baby — Williams calls her Olympia and her husband Alexis Ohanian, the Reddit co-founder, calls her Junior — gives Williams peace of mind. Just don’t mistake it for softness. Although Williams has her work cut out for her after nearly a year off the tour, she chose to come back for a reason.
“To be honest, there’s something really attractive about the idea of moving to San Francisco and just being a mom,” she told Vogue magazine. “But not yet. Maybe this goes without saying but it needs to be said in a powerful way: I absolutely want more Grand Slams. I’m well aware of the record books, unfortunately. It’s not a secret that I have my sights set on 25.
“And actually I think having a baby might help. When I’m too anxious I lose matches, and I feel like a lot of that anxiety disappeared when Olympia was born.”
Williams owns 23 titles. One more and she’s tied with Margaret Court as all-time leader. Two more confirms her as GOAT. She calls the No. 1 position “my spot.” She feels it is her possession. She does not like lending it out, as she has currently to Halep.
It’s hard to believe Williams is a mom. It’s hard to believe she is 36. And sister Venus is 37. I remember spending a day at the Williams’ house in Palm Beach Gardens with the teenage girls and parents Richard and Oracene 20 years ago when I was expecting my first child. They were politely curious about my pregnancy.
Richard swore at the time that his daughters would never play pro tennis a day past age 25 and they would be “fools” to want to whack a ball back and forth over a net after they had collected their fortunes.
Here they are still dominant after ups and downs and health crises and now motherhood and aunthood. Venus is coming off her best season in years. And still joyful.
They did not get sick of the game, as Richard predicted.
Yes, the kid will make Serena sharper because children tend to remove the ego from the poisonous equation of me plus me equals too much obsession with me.
Serena could have retired to strollerville and play dates but she is back. Even her exhalations were audible with a tinge of that growl.
“No matter how successful you are and how much money you’ve made, you still have to wake up every day and do something. Why not do what you are best at the world at doing?” Drysdale said. “Tennis is in Serena’s blood and soul. She wants to be on center court. We will see not one, but a few more Grand Slams.”