Serena Williams topped the WTA rankings released Monday, her third-straight week as No. 1 in absentia and 10th overall following her Australian Open victory, which was her last match before announcing her pregnancy. It'll also likely be Serena's final week atop the sport, 15 years after her debut at No. 1. When the new rankings hit next week, she'll drop to No. 2, flip-flopping again with Angelique Kerber, who first took the No. 1 spot from Serena back in September before the odd mathematics of the rankings formula saw them flip back-and-forth five times.
With her point totals continuing to drop for every tournament she misses, Serena will slide farther and farther down the rankings until she becomes unranked after the 2018 Australian Open (if she doesn't return before then). Right now, Serena is third on the all-time list of weeks at No. 1 with 319. That puts her only behind Steffi Graf (377, 58 weeks ahead) and Martina Navratilova (332, 13 weeks ahead). The tennis world fully expects Serena Williams to compete for Grand Slams upon her return. Any rational observer would probably put the over/under on post-pregnancy majors at 2.5 and that might even be too low. But what about No. 1? Will this be the last time we ever see Serena Williams' name officially atop the sport she's dominated for almost two decades?
I don't see why it has to be. Though I wouldn't necessarily bet on it, the possibility of a No. 1 return is far more realistic than the following scenario - "36-year-old returns after pregnancy seeking a No. 1 ranking that nobody besides her has ever reached while over the age of 30" - might suggest. Here why:
Getty ImagesNick Laham
The WTA is too even
There's a reason Serena Williams spent 2.5 months on top of the rankings without playing a match: the WTA is bunched up like runners are the start of a marathon. No one has even remotely looked as if they'd break from the pack, something that keeps rankings points close and allows for the possibility that a hot streak could get a player to the top spot.
Consider: The past and future No. 1, Kerber, had been 16-9 in 2017 before this week's tournament in Madrid. That'd be an okay, slightly disappointing, mark for a No. 10 player. For a No. 1 player, it's a downright disaster. The German has had opening round losses in three events and in the three biggest tournaments she's played this year (Melbourne, Indian Wells, Miami) she's had R16/R16/QF finishes.
Maria Sharapova became the French Open favorite after playing just two matches following her return from a 15-month drug suspension. In her last five Slam starts, co-favorite Simona Halep has two 1R losses and hasn't made it past a quarterfinal. Garbine Muguruza is the defending champion (she defeated Serena in the 2016 final) and she's about as prepared for her title defense as Buster Douglas was. It's a wide open sport at the moment.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY SportsMark Zerof
(An aside: There's an easy tendency to bash women's tennis because of this so-called mediocrity. But why can't it be parity? Sure, it hurts marketing for there not to be a Serena, Steffi, Chrissie or Martina in the sport, but in terms of tennis itself, what's wrong with having 20 players capable of winning a major? That's far more fun in the early days of Grand Slams than when men's tennis basically played 124 meaningless matches before getting to the inevitable Big Four semifinal. In the NFL we praise such evenness. It's part of what makes baseball's spring training so exciting. Somehow it's seen as a blemish on the WTA.
Meanwhile, though nobody would ever say such things about the ATP, No. 1 Andy Murray and No. 2 Novak Djokovic have been worse than Kerber, with Murray going R16 at the Australian Open and winning a total of one match at Indian Wells and Monte Carlo and Djokovic in a career free fall that led to the gutting of his support team last week.)
Susan MullaneSusan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports
Roger Federer showed it can be done
Other than leading their respective tours in career Grand Slams and their ages (they were born within seven weeks of each other in 1981), there are fewer parallels between the two modern G.O.A.T.s than you might think. But there's only one similarity that matters: Federer, at 35, is playing some of the best tennis of his life. If he can do it after three years of less-than-stellar play, then Serena, at 36 and without a noticeable dip in her game in the last 10 years, can too, especially in that aforementioned WTA environment.
No one knows what'll happen upon Serena's return. There aren't any true parallels to her comeback after having a child. Though three women have won majors in similar situations - Kim Clijsters being the most recent; she won one Slam before giving birth to her daughter and three after - none have been within five years of Serena's age when they won their majors as moms. The age is a far more important factor than the motherhood.
Serena turns 36 in September, the same month she's expected to give birth. Assuming she returns (that's the stated plan but priorities change, especially when you're the undisputed Grand Slam queen and have been playing on the professional level since the end of the last century) it's hard to imagine she makes it back before next year's Australian Open. If she doesn't, she'll be starting with a goose egg - zero points on the rankings, the same as Maria Sharapova had when she returned from her drug suspension. And if that's the case, then getting back to No. 1 will be a complete rebuild. It'd take three-quarters of a full season to even get the possible number of points to contend for that top spot, not to mention her results.
And this is where the timing gets dicey. The first question is when Serena will return. To use the nearest example, former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka plans to come back to the WTA in July after giving birth to her first child in December. That's eight months. That would put a Serena return around May 2018 - a full 16 months off.
In this scenario, Serena could play the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open next year, plus some fall events and the WTA Finals, and get to No. 1 by the end of the season, for sure. It would take at least two Slam finals and the same sort of parity on tour (which means Sharapova or Azarenka won't have broken away from the pack) to keep the feat in sight, but, look, Serena didn't lose a set in a Grand Slam while she was two months pregnant. If the French Open started today and Serena was cleared to play at 22 weeks, she'd still be the overwhelming favorite. Don't think she won't be when she returns too. But just because she can doesn't mean she will.
But will she have the desire?
This is what should, and will, ultimately sink any chance Serena has at adding to her total weeks at No. 1. It's almost certainly not going to be a priority.
Let's go back to Federer. At the end of Miami, there was some attention given to his chances of getting back to No. 1, which would have been unthinkable as recently as four months ago. Federer quickly ended the speculation by announcing he would skip the entire European clay court season (which includes three Masters 1000 events). By leaving those points on the table, Federer essentially declared that No. 1 holds little importance to him anymore.
It makes sense. For the Federers and Williamses of the world, Grand Slams are the only metric that matters. Getting to No. 1 means playing enough tournaments and going deep into them. It requires weekly globetrotting and the risk of injury. And what's the payoff? Whether Serena gets back to No. 1 will have exactly zero impact on her legacy, especially given that she'll never pass Graf for the No. 1 No. 1 of all time.
Susan Mullane-USA TODAY SportsSusan Mullane
No, it's all about the majors. Serena has 23. Federer has 18. Whatever total they end up with will forever be attached to their names. It'll be in the first sentence of their obituaries. Being No. 1? Been there, done that. Reaching the summit again would be a feather in the cap, but not at the expense of setting up for what really matters. The only use for rankings is keeping a seed that minimizes the chance at early showdowns with top opponents.
The careers of Federer and Serena (and soon to be joined by Nadal) are all about prepping for the four Grand Slams. In a way, this is how Serena has always been. She's never been a tour grinder. In her career, she topped out at playing 16 tournaments per year and has, for various reasons, averaged 11 or 12. Caroline Wozniacki hasn't played less than 20 tournament since 2007, a fact that helped her reach and stay at No. 1 before Serena's 2012 resurgence.
If anything, Serena the mom will probably be playing even less tennis than before, a concession to the realities of life. Thus, it's probably her last week at No. 1. But rankings are only one barometer. Serena Williams will once again be atop the tennis world even though the number next to her name might not say so.