Serena Williams makes her long-awaited return to tennis at the Italian Open this week and former British star Annabel Croft says it’s important for her to get a string of games under her belt as she chases a record-equalling 24th Gram Slam title.
The 39-year-old hasn’t played since the Australian Open, having undergone oral surgery. Now, as she fights to be fit for major tournaments going forward, Williams is choosing to manage her schedule more carefully.
This week in Rome will be her first clay-court competition of the season and she has been seeded eighth. A winner of this event on four occasions, Williams has won more matches (45) than any other player in the history of the tournament.
The 23-time major winner has a bye through to round two but will be keen to put together a run of matches in the build-up to Roland Garros later this month. Indeed, Croft stresses that while it’s important for Williams to get herself into shape, she can’t simply ignore matches.
“You can play matches, but nothing replicates competition. And, she would definitely want to play some matches ahead of the next Grand Slam.”
Williams has taken tennis to new heights this era and has a remarkably impressive record across all surfaces. At one stage, she’d reached 26 major finals and won 22, but has now lost six of her last seven and remains one short of Margaret Court’s all-time record.
Asked if she can equal this tally one day, Croft admits it’s becoming harder to say. Since winning the Australian Open in 2017, the former world number one has reached four more Grand Slam finals but has lost every one.
“It seems as though the nerves have just come into play, because she’s human”, Croft stresses. “I think it’s getting more and more difficult and because she’s had some injury problems as well, it’s only going to get tougher because of the age she’s at.
So it’s been an uphill battle, but I’m never one to write off a great champion.
The US icon is set to meet her arch-rival Naomi Osaka in the quarter-finals this week, assuming both players make it that far. Osaka has struggled herself recently and has a less than stellar record on clay, so it’s hard to pick a favourite at this stage.
If, however, Williams can bounce back from the defeat she suffered at the Australian Open and beat the Japanese star, it could be the perfect confidence booster as she continues to chase history.
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