Serena Williams started the “mother” of all rumour mills when she posted a Snapchat yesterday with a photo of herself labelled “20 weeks” – i.e., 20 weeks pregnant. After an agonizing delay of hundreds of minutes, the rumour was finally confirmed. And so the question becomes: what does the 23-time Grand Slam winner’s prolonged absence mean for the rest of the field in 2017?
Sport loves a dominant icon, but Serena has been uber-dominant. Of the last 20 Grand Slams, it’s a tie: Serena has won 10 of them, and so have the other 2,500 or so WTA players — combined. So, in a way, Serena’s upcoming sabbatical (and let’s hope it’s just a sabbatical) has pretty much doubled everyone else’s chances of winning a Slam in 2017 and early 2018. But among the field, who really benefits the most from Serena’s absence?
Angie has not had the best year. In fact, she will briefly lose her no.1 ranking next week to Serena, who is 20 weeks pregnant and hasn’t played since Australia. Serena’s exit from the tour in 2017 gives Kerber the chance to regroup and solidify her tenuous hold on the WTA top spot.
These days, 25 is the new 15. A host of players aged 25 and under are primed to win a Grand Slam or at least reach a final. These milestones just got a whole lot easier without Serena in the draw. Look for Madison Keys, barring injury, to reach her first Slam final, either at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. Other top young prospects to win or reach a Slam final this year include Garbine Muguruza (ranked 6 and already a Slam winner), Karolina Pliskova (ranked 3), and Elina Svitolina (ranked 12).
The Comeback Kids
The last thing a formerly high-ranked person wants to see coming back from a prolonged absence? Serena Williams across the net. Meeting Serena early in tournaments is deadly for anyone seeking to regain her foothold among the tour’s elite. For Maria Sharapova, Petra Kvitova, and Victoria Azarenka — Grand Slam champs who have been sidelined this year for very different reasons (Sharapova, drug suspension; Kvitova, violent attack; Azarenka, childbirth), and who have bad to horrid H2H records against Serena — the absence of SW23 means they can learn to swim again in relatively calm waters.
The Desert Wanderers
Several parched souls have been wandering the Sahara for lo these many years without a Grand Slam title. Caroline Wozniacki was ranked #1 in the world once upon a time, but she’s never tasted Grand Slam victory. Look for her to make her move at the U.S. Open this year, where she last made the finals in 2014 (losing to You-Know-Who). Three other Top 10 players I’d put in this category are Simona Halep, Dominika Cibulkova, and Agnieszka Radwanska. All of them have lost to Serena multiple times in Grand Slams this decade. They need to take a drink, at last.
As of this moment, there are, in fact, no WTA Grand Slam finalists in 2017 not named Williams. It was Venus who threatened to deny her (then-8-weeks-pregnant!) younger sister her 23rd major in Melbourne. That makes Venus, at age 36, the hottest prospect to take home the Venus Rosewater Dish at Wimbledon this year. And why not? She’s won it five times before, which is more than the rest of the field-not-named-Williams combined. Could Auntie Venus capitalize on Serena’s absence and win her first major in nine years?
The Big Question: Will She Come Back?
This has all happened too quickly. We’re not ready to contemplate the possibility that we’ve seen the last of the G.O.A.T. on the court. (Side note: can we just agree that she is the G.O.A.T., period? Because I’m pretty sure no one else has won 22 majors while non-pregnant and one major while pregnant. This is one stat, it’s safe to say, Federer will never match.) Serena’s representative has said that she’ll be back in 2018. Let’s hope Serena has Vika on speed dial for tips on how to come back post-partum. Chances are that she will, and who knows, she might even pull a Federer and come back refreshed, hungry, and with a new stroke or two in her arsenal. Sneak Attack by Serena, anyone?
But it is also undeniable that Serena will turn 37 later in 2018. Azarenka, who is coming back this year from having a baby, is nine years her junior. Another recent “tennis mom” who comes to mind, Kim Clijsters, was 29 when she retired for good. And so we can only hope we won’t have to wait until, say, 2034 to see another tennis champion named Williams.
2034: that’s the year Serena’s child turns 17.
Who do you think will make the most of Serena’s absence? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!