Last year at the Australian Open, Serena Williams set the record for the most number of Grand Slam titles in the Open era by winning her 23rd major. She did this when she was pregnant. She was hoping to be back for this year’s Australian Open, but she has decided that she is not fit enough. This leaves the women’s draw wide open. There are no clear favourites to win the title. Of the top five seeds – Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki, Garbine Muguruza, Elina Svitolina, and Venus Williams – only one (Garbine Muguruza) has won a Grand Slam since 2016; and only two others have made it to the finals (Venus Williams and Simona Halep). It is proof of how much the game has been dominated by Serena Williams in the past decade, and especially since 2016. She won two and reached the finals of another two Grand Slams since 2016. She won her last one without dropping a single set, while in her first trimester. At 36, and a new mother, the defending champion of the Australian Open has now broken more glass ceilings and records than anyone else in the history of the sport.
From a down-at-heel background, Serena has scaled a peak – of 23 Grand Slam titles – that might never be scaled again. It is a reflection of her greatness that on her return to the circuit, she will reclaim the favourite’s spot. In so many discussions about the greatest player of all time, the names that are most hotly debated are those of men, and how even past the age of 30, the prowess of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal remains undimmed. All the while, Serena Williams has beaten all her rivals, resisted racism and body shaming, defied every stereotype and set an example for young women everywhere. This year’s Australian Open is certainly poorer for her absence. But here’s hoping her comeback will give us more reasons to cheer for her.