Seaside gulls swirled, Eastbourne’s stands were packed and amplifiers blasted: “What a feeling, Being’s believin’, I can have it all. Now I’m dancing for my life.”
Serena Williams wasn’t dancing for her life. She’s done that a couple of times before. But this was a big day for her, for Rena’s army and for sports.
After nearly a year’s absence, we’d at last see the GOAT – not in a Superwoman ad, at yet another awards show or posing with her adorable daughter.
At last the Serena tennis missed so much would actually be back on court. Maybe the teary memories of last year’s Wimbledon, when she pulled up lame with a hamstring injury that would sideline her for a year and inflame retirement whispers, would recede.
Serena would be playing doubles with the beloved Tunisian Ons Jabeur against Spaniard Sara Sorribes Tormo and Czech Marie Bouzkova. Never before in a Slam warm-up had there been a first-round WTA doubles match that so drew our attention. And fans quickly went to their stat sheets.
Serena hadn’t won a match since the third round of the 2021 French Open, and she hadn’t won a singles major since the 2017 Aussie Open. She’d won 14 doubles majors with her sister Venus. No one had beat them at a Slam. And Jabeur was only the sixth player whom Serena had ever teamed up with in women’s doubles.
In many ways it made sense for Serena to choose Ons as her partner. The vastly popular Tunisian has a comforting presence. Everybody loves her. Her personality is user-friendly and her game has such an appealing variety – power and touch. The Madrid Open champ who just won in Berlin and is No. 3 in singles. But doubles is a different cat. This year Jabeur had only played three doubles tournaments. Her ranking was No. 1,658 – and it showed.
Jabeur didn’t seem to grasp the angles of the game. She tried too many of her favorite stroke, the drop shot. Her anticipation was modest and Ons sensed whom she was playing with. She was nervous.
And, not surprisingly, Serena was rusty. She played in a blue and purple outfit, but she and Ons were hardly in a purple patch. Serena couldn’t carry her partner and she was slow to get to low volleys. Her movement was modest, her backhands flew long, her returns didn’t have much zip and her serve was sub-par. There were few bolts and fist pumps and not a single “C’mon!”
Ons and the GOAT were being run around by fast, savvy foes with fine doubles instincts. Later Serena noted, “They were jamming!” She and Ons went down 1-5 and soon lost the first set 6-2 in a dismal 30 minutes.
This was not ideal. For Serena to make any kind of Wimbledon run, certainly she’d need some match play.
Sorribes Tormo and Bouzkova broke early in the second set. Then again, never underestimate a Williams, and Serena at last began to make her presence felt. Her serve, while not lights out, became a significant factor. Her groundies, once the most powerful in the WTA, gained pace and depth. She encouraged her errant partner and the Tunisian relaxed and cut down on her errors.
Serena did have a scary tumble at net. The crowd gasped, but no problem. At last in gear, Williams found her strokes and her rhythm. Her power surged. She stepped up as the best player on the court. Welcome back, GOAT, it’s so good to see you back in gear.
Williams stroked a brilliant, wristy lob, a backhand cross-court winner and a mighty serve as she and Ons took the second set 6-3 and raced to a 5-3 lead in the deciding tie-break. Power, experience and will were taking hold. Serena hit a stab volley winner that seemed to defy her 40-year age.
But on two match points Ons tightened up badly, missing an open court and netting a simple forehand. In a flash Sorribes Tormo and Bouzkova had a match point of their own, but couldn’t convert. Then, on Serena’s and Ons’ third match point, Sorribes Tormo completely botched a sitter backhand volley and handed her foes a 2-6, 6-3, 13-11 win.
Ons told the crowd, “I’m honored that she picked me. I couldn’t believe it…It was crazy…She kept encouraging me.” And for Rena’s Army and Williams fans from Eastbourne to Westwood the long awaited return of the most impactful woman in tennis history was far more than encouraging.