Serena Williams puts ‘Out of office’ on for Wimbledon return

Serena Williams prepares to compete in singles for the first time since being sidelined by injury in 2021

Serena Williams joked — or was it a joke? — that she activated the “Out of office” message on her email account so anyone trying to reach her about her many non-tennis activities while she’s at Wimbledon would know why no response arrived immediately.

Great as Williams is with a racket in her hand, successful as she’s been, her sport has never been the only activity that interested her or occupied her time. All of which might very well be a factor in why, just shy of 41, she is still in the game, returning to singles action for the first time in a year, and was smiling and chuckling occasionally while taking questions Saturday in the All England Club’s main interview room during a pre-tournament news conference.

“A little surreal,” the 23-time Grand Slam champion said, “sitting here again.”

Serena Williams of the US during a practice session ahead of the 2022 Wimbledon Championship at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, Wimbledon, London, Saturday, June 25, 2022. (John Walton/PA via AP)

She hasn’t competed in singles since she injured — “ripped” was the verb the American used — her right hamstring during the opening set of her first-round match at Centre Court in 2021. That disappointing exit provided “a tremendous amount of motivation,” she said.

“I didn’t retire. I just needed to heal physically, mentally. And I had no plans, to be honest. I just didn’t know when I would come back. I didn’t know how I would come back,” Williams said. “Obviously, Wimbledon is such a great place to be, and it just kind of worked out.”

No one else knew until recently when, or whether, Williams would play again, a not-insignificant matter, considering what a transcendent figure she is. She wouldn’t say whether this will be her last appearance at the All England Club, offering simply: “I can only tell you that I’m here. Who knows where I’ll pop up next?”

The seven-time Wimbledon singles champion made a brief appearance this week in doubles at a grass-court event in Eastbourne, but Tuesday’s outing against Harmony Tan will be a much bigger deal. Williams said she decided to play Wimbledon “some time ago,” saying she made up her mind before the French Open, which began on May 22.

Williams, a former No. 1 now ranked outside the WTA’s top 1,200 and allowed into the Wimbledon field via a wild-card invitation, practiced on Centre Court on Friday. She arrived for her session just as current No. 1 Iga Swiatek, who is on a 35-match winning streak, wrapped up hers.

“I was pretty overwhelmed. … I didn’t know how to react perfectly. I wanted to meet her. I saw that she had so many people around her. I don’t know her team. It was pretty weird,” Swiatek said, likening the feeling to when she was younger and “too shy to say ‘Hi’ to anybody.”

“Just seeing her around is great, because she’s such a legend,” Swiatek continued. “There’s nobody that has done so much in tennis.”

Williams has done plenty outside of tennis, too.

Serena Williams walks to the practice courts ahead of the 2022 Wimbledon Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, Wimbledon, england, Thursday June 23, 2022. (Steven Paston/PA via AP)

That includes forays into business with investment firm Serena Ventures and entertainment via past acting roles and by joining her older sister, Venus — a seven-time major singles champion not entered in Wimbledon this year — as executive producers for King Richard, the film about their father that was nominated for five Academy Awards.

“A part of me feels like that is a little bit more of my life now than tournaments. … I absolutely love what I do. I love investing in companies,” Williams said. “And then the Oscars was really fun. … At best, you think of winning Grand Slams, not being nominated for an Oscar for a film that you produce.”

This is hardly her first comeback after time away because of operations, other health problems and having a baby.

Williams also never was someone who entered every possible tournament, even when physically fine.

“I never played as much as the next player throughout my whole career. I think that was all subconscious, me taking care of myself and knowing how to take care of myself,” she said. “A lot of people have to learn that. I think that was something that my parents built into me.”

Williams did not answer every query put to her by reporters on Saturday.

She avoided topics such as the U.S. Supreme Court decision Friday that stripped away women’s constitutional protections for abortion (“I don’t have any thoughts that I’m ready to share right now”), the All England Club’s ban on players from Russia and Belarus because of the war in Ukraine (“I’m going to step away from that”) or what it feels like to be without former coach Patrick Mouratoglou (“I didn’t even think about it”).

But ever the competitor, ever the perfectionist, Williams was prepared when someone wanted to know what she would consider a good outcome for her at Wimbledon.

“You know the answer to that,” she said, punctuating her reply with a laugh and a roll of her eyes. “Come on, now.”

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