Serena Williams sent a warning sign to her rivals with an impressive display against French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in her first match since childbirth.
Four months after giving birth to daughter Alexis Olympia and less than a month after returning to proper training, Williams took on world number seven Ostapenko in an exhibition clash in Abu Dhabi.
Serena Williams reacts after chasing down a drop shot to win the second set against Jelena Ostapenko (Kamran Jebreili/AP)
It was Ostapenko who ultimately came out on top, winning 6-2 3-6 10-5, but Williams showed more than enough to indicate she could be a force to be reckoned with at the Australian Open in two weeks’ time.
The 36-year-old looks set to fulfil her “outrageous plan” of defending her title in Melbourne, which she claimed while nine weeks pregnant.
Remarkably, Williams is already the bookmakers’ favourite and, for a player well used to going into grand slams without much preparation, a 24th grand slam title appears plausible.
The American revealed she struggled to keep her mind on the match, saying in an on-court interview broadcast by Eurosport: “Motherhood is phenomenal. I was a little worried out there – I looked at my camp and asked ‘is Olympia okay?’
“But it’s really good. I’m excited. It’s good to be back on court, this is such a good time for me. First matches back are always super incredibly hard, especially after having a baby, but it was great.”
The early signs were not promising. Understandably looking well short of top shape, Williams barely moved her feet and her usually fearsome serve was fodder for Ostapenko.
The Latvian quickly opened up a 4-1 lead and went on to take the opening set. But there were moments where the old feelings seemed to be coming back, with the end of the set a lot higher quality from both women.
By the second set, Williams was more sprightly on her feet and crunching groundstrokes and she broke the Ostapenko serve twice to lead 3-0.
There were still some uncharacteristic misses and questionable decision making but Williams’ ambition for the new season was evident in her displays of frustration when she fell short of her own expectations.
She nimbly chased down a drop shot that caught the top of the net to level the match but paid for too many errors in the deciding match tie-break.
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