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Will Serena Williams return to the top? What does her pregnancy mean for women's tennis?

Will Serena return to the top? What does her pregnancy mean for women's tennis?

20/04/2017 at 22:29

We take a look at what Serena Williams' pregnancy means for her long-term ambitions and how it will affect her sport.

What's the news?

On Wednesday night, Serena Williams posted a picture on Snapchat – that was swiftly deleted – of herself and the caption ’20 weeks’.

This began frenzied speculation that she was pregnant and led to the conclusion that, if confirmed, she would have been around 8 weeks into her term when winning the Australian Open in January.

The Women's Tennis Association even congratulated her on Twitter before deleting its post.

However, overnight it was officially announced that Williams was indeed pregnant by her publicist Kelly Bush Novak, who said:"I'm happy to confirm Serena is expecting a baby this fall."

What was the reaction?

The response was a mixture of awe and glee.

Tennis' U.S. governing body, the United States Tennis Association, wrote on Facebook, "Join us in congratulating the GOAT and her fiancé Alexis Ohanian on this incredible news!" referring to Williams with the acronym for "Greatest of All Time."

Many celebrities and former players could also not believe how the 35-year-old had managed to win a Grand Slam while pregnant.

And, of course, the WTA finally got to send official congratulations via CEO, Steve Simon, who said: “We’re excited for Serena. This is wonderful news and we wish her the very best.

" "We’ll look forward to seeing her when she’s back competing again."

Out for 2017, but what then?

Well, Simon's congratulatory message calls into question what the future holds for the outstanding female player.

Publicist Novak confirmed Williams would, of course, not be featuring for the rest of the season but 'looks forward to returning in 2018'. So she intends to come back but the seven-time Wimbledon winner turns 36 in September, and, with a new baby to contend with, will it be a meaningful return?

Researchers who study pregnancy in high-performing athletes said her training during pregnancy, the speed of her body's recovery after giving birth and her will power are the keys to Williams returning to top-level play.

James Pivarnik, a kinesiology professor at Michigan State University, said her muscular build could overcome some of the changes that usually impair performance.

So physically it seems Williams could indeed make a return.

Will she reach the top again?

There have been many other women on the tour who have taken a break to have children, with examples of some who have returned to a high level.

Belgium's Kim Clijsters came back at age 26 after retiring and went on to win three Grand Slams while Australians Evonne Goolagong and Margaret Court also won major titles after having children.

Kim Clijsters sustained an injury when dancing

Kim Clijsters sustained an injury when dancingPA Photos

Former No 1 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, 27, missed most of the 2016 season to have a baby and is expected to return to the tour this summer.

Crucially none of the above women were as old as Williams when they had children so it would be unprecedented if she were to return to her incredibly high level. However, with the American averaging two major titles a year for the past five seasons it would be madness to bet against her.

More pertinent, however, might be the mental side of things.

"We've seen some other mothers come back ... but will she have enough motivation when she sees that little one?" former world No. 1 Hall of Famer Tracy Austin said on the Tennis Channel.

" She's already done so much, does she need more?"

The money will surely not be a factor. Indeed for Williams, who commands nearly £22million in salary and sponsorship earnings, becoming pregnant makes her all the more attractive to corporate sponsors, industry executives said.

But there is one figure that might entice her back more than any other – 24 – the record number of major titles held by Court. Although the chance of a Serena Slam in a single season – winning all four major titles – is now almost certainly out of reach, her quest to be indisputably the best, could be the big motivating factor.

Having finally surpassed Steffi Graf's total of 22 Slams earlier this year, the player who many consider to be the GOAT across both men's and women's games already, could aim to wipe away any lingering doubt.

What does this mean for women’s tennis?

In short, it means the women's game has been blown wide open. Williams, who ironically will return to the top of the rankings next week, has been usurped in recent times as No 1 by Germany's Angelique Kerber. However, with the American only playing two rankings tournaments alongside the Grand Slams in the past 12 months, there has never really been a debate about who is the best player in the women's game.

Angelique Kerber celebrates in Miami

Angelique Kerber celebrates in MiamiReuters

Kerber only has two majors to her name and although she will be favourite to fill the void at No 1 in Williams' absence, it is not a guarantee.

There are a clutch of other players who will also present a threat. Maria Sharapova, who is set to return from a doping ban, will be determined to make the most of her great rival's time away. She has a 0-18 record against her since 2005.

Beyond that there are players in the top 10 who have briefly looked as though they will take up the mantle to threaten Williams before fading away – including Garbine Muguruza, the 2016 French Open champion, and Poland's Agnieszka Radwanska.

Petra Kvitova is also due to return in the coming months after being attacked in her home, but has never been consistent enough at the major events to challenge Williams. The same can be said for Azarenka.

One of the players who has the best chance of continuing all the way to the top is Britain's Jo Konta, who has been rising steadily up the rankings for the past year and is still clearly improving. She was outstanding in her run at the Australian Open, blasting her way to the last eight before being undone by Williams, and has the all-round game to threaten.

So, although Williams' time away will be a huge loss for the game, there are plenty of rivals who could profit.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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