EASTBOURNE – Despite three British players in action earlier on Center Court, it was Serena Williams who the Eastbourne crowd wanted to see.
Her star quality remains undimmed despite a 12-month lay-off; earlier, fans stood six-deep as she practiced on an outside court, eager to catch a glimpse of the former world No 1.
She has entered the doubles event at Eastbourne with the Tunisian Ons Jabeur to give her grass-court practice ahead of another tilt at the singles crown at Wimbledon, which starts on Monday.
Her fitness was tested in their victory on Tuesday over Czech Marie Bouzkova and Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain – 2-6, 6-3, 13-11 in 93 minutes. At times Williams appeared rusty, rooted to the spot even, as their opponents lobbed her several times, and her serve wasn’t the potent weapon we’re used to.
But there were flashes of the old Williams, too – zingers down the line and ferocious smashes at the net, and a couple of serves at 114mph and 116mph.
Since winning her 23rd grand-slam title (the Australian Open in 2017), Williams has faltered in her attempt to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24, losing in four slam finals.
She denies she is chasing the record but how else to explain entering Wimbledon carrying a hamstring injury as she did last year? She came to court for her first match against Aliaksandra Sasnovich with a heavily strapped right thigh, retired after six games and has not played a competitive singles match since.
But Williams appeared relaxed in Tuesday’s doubles win “It was fun,” she said afterwards. “It was good to be back on court.”
She will need that positivity – and more match practice – going into Wimbledon. At 40, Williams is more than double the age of some of her fellow competitors, including Emma Raducanu.
Much depends on the draw, which is released on Friday morning. Williams, ranked 1,204 in the world, has been given a wild card and is unseeded – which means she could face the top seed and world No 1 Iga Swiatek in the first round.
The retirement of last year’s champion Ashleigh Barty has removed one dangerous opponent, but players who have beaten Williams – including 15th and 16th seeds Angelique Kerber and Simona Halep, who defeated the American in the 2018 and 2019 Wimbledon finals respectively – remain.
Yet Williams, having graced 33 grand-slam finals, knows how to play the big points and, like all great champions, can find another level for the big occasion. And her powerful game, even after such a long layoff, is regarded as a threat, as world No 4 Paula Badosa said earlier this week.
“Of course I don’t want to play against her,” the Spaniard said. “Because no wants to play Serena and [even] less on grass. ”
Realistically, it would be an upset as big as Raducanu’s win at last year’s US Open should Williams reach the business end of Wimbledon. But if sheer determination counts for anything, Williams will be there.