Serena Williams offers positive signs in her comeback match. Can she contend at Wimbledon?

Dan Wolken

For the first time since turning 40, and almost one full year from the last time anyone saw her in a tennis match, Serena Williams walked out to a packed house Tuesday in Eastbourne, England. 

Was it a full-on comeback? Was it a shot in the dark after months where it seemed like she didn’t really intend to play tennis again? Was it simply the first step in a long road to continue chasing her elusive 24th Grand Slam title?

Roughly 90 minutes later, after a 2-6, 6-3, 13-11 (tiebreak in place of third set) victory in doubles playing alongside No. 3-ranked Ons Jabeur, we didn't get all the answers to those questions. But one thing was pretty clear: It would be foolish to write Williams off to retirement just yet. 

The details of the match, and even the result, don’t matter much. The partnership this week between Williams and Jabeur, who rarely plays doubles, was conceived for only one reason. Williams, whose ranking has dropped to No. 1,204, hasn't played since tearing a hamstring at 3-3 in the first round of last year's Wimbledon against Aliaksandra Sasnovich. When Williams announced last week that she would take a wildcard entry into the Wimbledon field this year, the accompanying commitment to play doubles in Eastbourne would theoretically give her a chance to knock off some of the rust and get a feel for the grass without asking too much of herself physically.

Serena Williams has won Wimbledon seven times.

Yes, even for Williams, trying to win a Grand Slam without playing at all for a year seems like an impossible task. 

But then again, this is Serena — and if nothing else, her first performance back offered enough encouragement to believe that competing at the highest level is still possible even at this unique stage of her career. The timing on her groundstrokes looked terrific. The serve was solid. She moved decently well and was much better overall than Jabeur, who was struggling with the pressure of playing alongside arguably the greatest of all-time. 

After it looked early on like Williams and Jabeur were going to make a quick exit from the tournament, they’ll get at least one more match in before moving to the All England Club. For Williams, every little bit helps. 

“Oh my God, it was so fun to play with Ons and it was great,” Williams said in her on-court interview after beating Sara Sorribes Tormo and Marie Bouzkova. "Our opponents played amazing. We were just trying to stay in there after first set. It was good, though. I called (Jabeur to ask about the partnership). She’s been playing so well and I knew I need to play some matches. She's always been so sweet to me on tour so I thought it would be fun to play.”

Until last week’s announcement, retirement — whether Williams made it official or just quietly slipped away — seemed far more likely than contending for a Wimbledon title. Williams hasn’t been hiding from the public, but her activities and social media posts showed her doing everything but preparing for tournaments. She recently split with her longtime coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. There was no buzz in the tennis world about progressing toward a comeback. 

But it’s not just the return of those powerful cross-court backhands, the screaming serves and Williams’ extended grunt after a patented winner that would inspire hope she might just be able to pull off one more Wimbledon title. 

It’s also the uneven state of women’s tennis, which was upended in March when No. 1 and reigning Wimbledon champion Ashleigh Barty made the shocking announcement that she was done playing at age 25. Since Barty's retirement, Iga Swiatek has taken her place as the tour’s dominant force and will ride into Wimbledon on a 35-match win streak encompassing six tournament titles including the most recent French Open

But on grass, Swiatek has a relatively short track record and chose not to play a warm-up event after the long run in Paris. On any other surface, she’d be an overwhelming favorite. At Wimbledon, she’s an unknown quantity.

Beyond Swiatek, it’s hard to actually pinpoint who the women’s contenders are. The list of seeded players is filled with former Wimbledon champions who haven’t played well this year (Garbine Muguruza, Simona Halep, Petra Kvitova, Angelique Kerber), players struggling with injuries (Paula Badosa, Emma Raducanu, Barbora Krejcikova) and a bunch more who have yet to put it all together at a Grand Slam. 

It is truly a wide open Wimbledon. With the right draw, good health and a little luck, why not Serena at the tournament she’s won seven times and finished four more times as runner-up? 

Traditional logic would say it’s impossible. After giving birth to daughter Olympia, Williams returned to win at least one more Grand Slam trophy and came oh-so-close — losing in the finals of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2018 and 2019.

That leaves her with 23 major titles, a record for the Open Era and one short of Margaret Court, who racked up 11 Australian Opens in her home country at a time when hardly any top players from the U.S. or Europe made the long trip Down Under.

For all intents and purposes, the more important record already belongs to Serena. There’s no reason for her continue if she doesn’t feel she has a chance — especially on a quirky grass surface that historically brings out the best in her game.

She might be wrong. While her younger rivals have been grinding away on tour for the last couple years, Williams has played just eight singles matches in the past 16 months. It’s almost inconceivable that she’d have the fitness level, rhythm and confidence to win seven straight matches against the best players in the world.

Even this week, it’s a little strange that she chose only to play doubles, which requires different skillsets and less endurance than what she’ll face on the singles court. Still, none of the top seeds are going to want to see her name pop up anywhere near them in the draw. 

With Williams, it’s easy to believe that anything’s possible because she’s made her fans and her competitors feel that way for more than two decades, going all the way back to her first U.S. Open final against Martina Hingis when she stunned the then-No. 1 at age 17. 

Somehow, Williams produced that kind of tennis again Tuesday, even if it was just on the doubles court at a small tournament a couple hours south of Wimbledon. It doesn't mean she’ll win or even last more than a couple rounds next week. But Williams made it clear that even after a long layoff and her 40th birthday in the rear-view mirror, she’s still got some game left. Now we’ll see how far it can take her.