Melbourne - Defending champion Serena Williams pulled out of
the Australian Open on Friday, saying she was "super close" but still
not at the level she needs to be after giving birth to her first child.
The American 23-time Grand Slam winner made a tentative
return at an Abu Dhabi exhibition late last month, losing to French Open
champion Jelena Ostapenko.
Prior to that her last competitive match was at the
Australian Open final almost a year ago, which she won despite being two months
pregnant, memorably beating sister Venus in the decider.
Since then, she has given birth to her first child and
married Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian at a star-studded wedding, where
guests included Beyonce and reality TV star Kim Kardashian.
"After competing in Abu Dhabi I realised that although
I am super close, I'm not where I personally want to be," the 36-year-old
said in a statement.
"My coach and team always said 'only go to tournaments
when you are prepared to go all the way'.
"I can compete, but I don't want to just compete, I
want to do far better than that and to do so, I will need a little more time.
"With that being said, and even though I am
disappointed about it, I've decided not to compete in the Australian Open this
year," she added.
Her withdrawal deprives the opening Grand Slam of the year
of another major star, after former world number one Andy Murray and Japan's
Kei Nishikori both pulled out injured on Thursday.
In Abu Dhabi, Williams was clearly sluggish and had problems
with her serve. She also stuck mostly to the baseline and only twice charged
Despite this, she made it clear afterwards that she missed
being on court and was desperate to play at Melbourne Park, where she has been
crowned champion seven times.
Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley expressed
his admiration for her efforts to return to the game she loves.
"The true champion Serena has been demonstrated in the
Herculean efforts she has made over the past few months in her desire to play
the Australian Open," he said.
"It was never going to be good enough for her to just
compete, she wants to give herself the best chance to win.
"I've been in constant contact with Serena and her team
and know this is why she has pushed it and pushed it until the eleventh hour to
make her final decision."
Few players have successfully bounced back after giving
birth, and even fewer have managed to go on to win Grand Slam titles.
Williams can look to Margaret Court, Kim Clijsters, and
Evonne Goolagong Cawley as those who achieved the feat as mothers.
A key motivation for her is to match Court, who boasts 24
major titles and is renowned as the most successful player in Grand Slam history,
but this must now wait until the French Open at the earliest.
The Australian Open starts on January 15, with a host of top
names either out or battling to be fit.
Murray has returned home after failing to recover from a hip
injury sustained last year, while Nishikori has been on the sidelines since
August due to a torn tendon in his right wrist.
World number one Rafael Nadal and six-time Australian Open
champion Novak Djokovic also have injury issues, having yet to play a
competitive match this year.
Stan Wawrinka, Milos Raonic, Johanna Konta, and Garbine
Muguruza are among others either on the comeback trail or fighting to be ready.
The irrepressible Roger Federer appears to be one of the few
top names to be fully fit, leading Switzerland into the Hopman Cup final with
another masterclass against top-10 rival Jack Sock in Perth on Thursday.