Serena Williams’ first match in almost a whole year, ended in a tight defeat to Roland Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko. You could argue that Serena’s return to the women’s game was the return that everyone had been waiting for since she stepped away from the tour to give birth to her first child.
Williams was left frustrated for large portions of the match. In many ways, you could draw comparisons to Williams’ performance to that of Andy Murray in the one-set exhibition yesterday. The troublesome side to Ostapenko’s game is her ability to find lines and to make the court look bigger than it actually is. She makes her opponent second guess their own movement and challenges her opponent to pick a side, because of the unbelievable power and placement of some of her shots. This troubled Williams greatly.
Ostapenko quickly stole the first set 6-2 and the average viewer watched on and expected a response from the great champion. Williams did respond and levelled the match to take it into a match tiebreak to decide the match. The Latvian looked phenomenal and wound up defeating her idol in the Abu Dhabi exhibition match.
What are the afterthoughts of Williams’ return? Firstly, Williams will be looking for a big improvement in her footwork. Any shot hit with angle or with a serious change in direction, really put Williams on the back-foot and she would want to see her taking control and letting rip in a lot more of her matches in 2018. That is where she excels most.
The serve did not have the same penetration as when she usually plays at her maximum. It lacked speed, reliability and consistency, but it is easy to overlook the fact that Williams is lacking match-play and she has just given birth. With time and with patience we could be seeing more major titles go the way of Serena Williams. It would not be surprising in the slightest.
Furthermore, Williams still looked very domineering, ruthless and somewhat breathtaking when the ball is in her hitting zone. She has opponents at her mercy when the ball is sat at the perfect height and pace, where she punishes anyone that simply doesn’t make her move side-to-side. The challenge between now and the Australian Open is to improve her movement to the point that she is the one that is commanding the points regularly, but you have also got to remember that not every player plays the same brave, carefree brand of tennis that Ostapenko plays. It is the nature of her game, she will make you retreat because of how well she can strike the tennis ball.
I think the loss will do Williams a world of good. The pleasing thing for Williams is that she can look back at this match and realise that she can improve many things and knowing Williams she will stop at nothing to iron out certain parts of her game in order to get better. It is what all the great players do.
She is currently the favourite to lift the Australian Open trophy in four weeks time, whether she can return to that sort of form in such a small period of time remains to be seen, but Williams will be hoping to put herself back in the Grand Slam conversation right away.