The announcement came late on Saturday night, UK time. “Serena Williams has withdrawn from the Miami Open because of a left knee injury.” The schedule took a rejig, and the tournament continued on its way, even as its organisers cursed the loss of their biggest draw.
Behind tennis’s busy facade, though, much doubt and intrigue is swirling.
Williams was dominant between her comeback from foot surgery in 2011 and her maternity leave in 2017, winning 10 of 19 majors in one five-year spell. Contrast that with her record since returning from the birth of Alexis Olympia last March: a period in which she has posted an impressive win-loss record of 27-6, but has failed to add to her 72 career titles.
Her past four tournaments have also ended in unconventional ways. There was the emotional meltdown at September’s US Open final, which became the biggest tennis story of last year, followed by the much calmer but equally bizarre collapse in Australia, where she threw away a 5-1 lead and four match points in the quarter-final against Karolina Pliskova.
Now, Williams’ runs at the two big American spring events have also come unstuck. First a virus left her feeling woozy against Garbine Muguruza in Indian Wells a fortnight ago, and eventually retiring early in the second set. Then she logged just one patchy win at the Miami Open, in what she considers to be her home tournament.
As we head towards the clay, does anyone really know where Williams is at?
A year into the latest phase of her career, she is combining elite sport with motherhood with remarkable success. But then, as she herself admitted last week: “My level of success is so much higher than what’s natural, so I have to take these moments and say, ‘You’re doing great’, encourage myself in a positive way so I can get that success that I want to have since coming back from the baby.”
On March 8, she looked close to her peak in a ripper of a win over old friend and rival Victoria Azarenka. It felt natural, on the basis of that performance, to predict that a 24th major – which would carry her level with Margaret Court’s all-time record – should be well within Williams’s compass. Since then, though, her renewed physical struggles have confused the picture again.
Much remains to be answered, including how much clay-court tennis Williams intends to play before the French Open. She enjoys her trips to Paris so much that she bought a flat on the Rive Gauche. But what about Madrid and Rome, the build-up events?
Clay is Williams’s weakest surface – a relative judgment, of course, as she has won all these tournaments on multiple occasions – and you would imagine that a lengthy period of acclimatisation would boost her chances at Roland Garros. On the other hand, she has entered only four non-grand-slam events since she became a mother, and they were all in the US.
During this dry period for the empress of tennis – again, a relative judgment, given that Williams reached the finals of both Wimbledon and the US Open last year – the sport has been waiting for a new pattern to emerge.
Instead, the rankings show seven players bunched between 5,000 and 6,000 points, which suggests that nobody has taken a firm grip. The 13 tour events of 2019 have thrown up 13 different winners.
As in men’s tennis, one suspects that the next dominant player might not come from the middle generation – which, on the women’s side, contains the likes of Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber and Petra Kvitova. These stalwarts may have spent too long scrapping for inches to mount an overwhelming campaign.
Instead, expectations are coalescing around 21-year-old Naomi Osaka – who triumphed in the two most recent majors, but has only ever lifted one regular tour title – and even younger players such as Bianca Andreescu, the Canadian 18-year-old who has won her past 10 matches including a maiden WTA title in Indian Wells. Over the past week, Andreescu has rattled the usually inscrutable Kerber by beating her twice, causing Kerber to dub her “the biggest drama queen ever” during an ill-tempered handshake on Saturday night.
As Johanna Konta searches for form, no British player is pushing to join this elite group. Happily, though, male No 1 Kyle Edmund has rediscovered his own mojo in recent weeks. Having won the Indian Wells Challenger, Edmund forged his way into the fourth round of the Miami Open with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over 12th seed Milos Raonic.
This was Edmund’s best win, on ranking, since he defeated Novak Djokovic in Madrid almost a year ago. He will play another big server, American No 1 John Isner, in the last 16.