Serena promises to return in 2019
Melbourne: Serena Williams' decision not to defend her Australian Open title four months after giving birth to her first child had nothing to do with merely being able to play at Melbourne Park.
The seven-time Australian Open champion confirmed yesterday she wouldn't attempt to defend the title she won here last year, saying she wasn't convinced she could win it.
Williams played in an exhibition tournament last weekend in Abu Dhabi to test her match condition, and indicated after her loss to French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko that she might not travel to Melbourne.
"After competing in Abu Dhabi I realised that although I am super close, I'm not where I personally want to be," Williams said in a statement yesterday. "My coach and team always said 'Only go to tournaments when you are prepared to go all the way.' I can compete — but I don't want to just compete, I want to do far better than that and to do so, I will need a little more time.
"With that being said, and even though I am disappointed about it, I've decided not to compete in the Australian Open this year."
Williams was pregnant when she won at Melbourne Park last year, her Open-era record 23rd grand slam singles title. She gave birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia, in September.
Williams didn't drop a set while winning last year's title, and her victory helped her regain the world No 1 ranking.
The 36-year-old Williams needs only one more major title to equal the all-time record held by Margaret Court, who won 13 of her 24 grand slam titles before the Open era began in 1968.
Three women have returned after having babies to win grand slam singles titles in the Open era, including Court and fellow Australian Evonne Goolagong Cawley, who won the 1977 Australian Open seven months after giving birth to daughter, Kelly.
Serena is promising to return in future. "The memory of last year's Open is one that I will carry with me, and Olympia and I look forward to coming back again," she said. "I appreciate the support and understanding of my fans and everyone at the Australian Open."
Tournament director Craig Tiley said Serena Williams waited as long as she could before letting organisers know she wouldn't be able to compete. "I've been in constant contact with Serena and her team and know this is why she has pushed it and pushed it until the 11th hour to make her final decision," he said.
Meanwhile, organisers have forecast a repeat of last year's fast court conditions. The courts at Melbourne Park are resurfaced towards the end of each year and generally take a few weeks to reach their top speed once the acrylic has been applied.
This makes the timing of the process particularly important. Tiley last year admitted the show courts, which were resurfaced slightly earlier than the others, had been as fast at the start of 2017 as they were at the end of the 2016 tournament. But he says there has been no change to the annual resurfacing process and players should expect the courts to be the same "medium-fast" pace of last year. Tiley also believes the pace on offer at Melbourne Park enhances the overall spectacle by catering to a variety of playing styles.
"The speed encourages that," Tiley said. "It's funny, because players say 'Oh, the court is fast' ... and then we had a clay-court player (Rafael Nadal) and a fast-court player (Roger Federer) in the final.
"The best players, no matter what the surfaces, figure out a way to get to the end." The fact only some courts are exposed to the sun is another variable in the long and "very specific" resurfacing process.
"There's only a few people that know the technique because even the way you put the surface on and the angle at which you do the brush makes a difference," Tiley said.
Officials tested court speeds daily throughout last year's tournament and found that they had remained within the expected range. "I'll walk down on the first day that Roger's hitting or Rafa's hitting and I'll look them in the eye and know exactly what they're going to tell me," Tiley said. "We've done it exactly the same as last year, and (most players) liked the surface last year."