Serena Williams is hoping the grass of SW19 will once more prove a happy hunting ground as she returns to action at Wimbledon on Monday for the first time since becoming a mother.
The queen of centre court won her seventh Wimbledon singles title and sixth doubles title at the All England Club in 2016 before missing last year’s tournament while pregnant with Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr.
The winner of a record 23 grand slam singles titles in the open era, the big question is whether she can equal and ultimately surpass Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24.
To do that she will have to emulate what only three female players have done in the open era – Court, Evonne Goolagong Cawley and, most recently, Kim Clijsters: win a title after having a child.
They were all at least five years younger than Williams, now 36, when they won their titles but few would bet against her, given that she won the last of her grand slam titles – the Australian Open – while eight weeks pregnant.
At a pre-tournament press conference on Sunday, she said that, far from being a hindrance, parenthood had been a boost to her competitive instinct.
“I feel like it’s stronger because I’ve been through so much,” she said. “I put so much on the back burner. I feel like even more so, I’m even more competitive … it definitely surprises me a little because I thought, you know, it would be different.
“I thought, you know, ‘Hey, I have this amazing child, I have all these grand slams, this is all super bonus,’ and it is. I definitely feel a lot less pressure out there, but I am a little bit shocked at how much I almost want that pressure. You know, I almost want to feel the need to go out there and be the best that I can be.”
In 2016, before winning Wimbledon, many felt the burden of equalling Steffi Graf’s then open era record of 22 grand slam titles was weighing on her as she lost in the finals of the Australian Open and French Open.
The fact that she postponed her press conference for 24 hours – it was supposed to be on Saturday – to go to a polo match with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex may itself be a sign that she is relaxed ahead of the tournament.
Prof Greg Whyte, a performance expert and author of Bump it Up, a guide to exercise, diet and pregnancy, said female athletes often came back to achieve great things after pregnancy and it could help them relax mentally by giving them perspective.
He said of Williams: “She’s young, she’s fit, she’s healthy and probably has a very good lifestyle.
“The caveat to all this is she has undergone major abdominal surgery [the delivery was by caesarean section]. She’s still got to overcome that before getting back to her best form but I think you’ll see a more motivated, relaxed person who is potentially enjoying her game even more, having had a baby.”
Williams’s chances, 20 years after her first appearance at Wimbledon, have been boosted by the decision to make her number 25 out of 32 seeds, despite her ranking of 183 in the world, having played just three tournaments since returning.
If that decision went down badly with the world number 32, Dominika Cibulková, who was bumped from the seeds as a result, it made perfect sense to the likes of John McEnroe who said he would probably rank her in the top 10 and at 16 at worst.
Williams, who will play the Dutch world No 107 Arantxa Rus, on No 1 court on Monday, said she was “pleasantly surprised by the decision”, adding: “I thought it was very, very noble and honest and cool. Maybe not honest, but cool.”
She was also pleased with the weather, which she said was the most beautiful she had seen in her visits to Wimbledon and made her feel at home.
The Wimbledon grounds staff may be less enamoured of the weather. Players including Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray all passed comment last year on the supposedly dry, hard and slippery condition of the grass, which was blamed on a long spell of hot weather.
Federer, who enjoyed a love-in with Williams over the weekend (both describing each other as the greatest of all time), will be first to test out the grass on centre court on Monday, as he begins his title defence against Serbia’s Dušan Lajović.
Andy Murray announced on Sunday he was pulling out of the tournament because of injury. He had been due to face Benoît Paire in the first round.