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Serena Williams talks about her return to Wimbledon

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WIMBLEDON, England (AP) — At first glance, it certainly looked like Wimbledon on Saturday was business as usual.

Two days before the start of this Grand Slam tournament, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal were practicing on adjacent grass courts with the bell tower of the Church of Santa Maria as a backdrop.

As the two longtime rivals trained in the English sun, Serena Williams took a seat under the spotlight in the main interview room, as she has many times before.

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But while hers will be her 21st Wimbledon, it will be an occasion like no other for Williams. He returns to the All England Club aged 40, having not played a singles match since Wimbledon last year, when he tore his right hamstring after slipping during the first set of a first-round match he failed to complete in the center court.

I asked Williams how much the desire to have a different Wimbledon memory motivated her during her comeback.

“It was always something, ever since the game was over, that was always on my mind,” he said. “So it was an enormous amount of motivation.”

Center Court, now 100 years old and still the most atmospheric display venue in the professional game, has been the scene of many triumphs for Williams, who has won seven Wimbledon singles titles.

But it was all pain and disappointment last year. She was crying as she tried to continue after her injury and she cried again after being forced to stop the match against Aliaksandra Sasnovich. Although Williams was able to limp off the field, she stumbled leaving the grass and needed help getting to the hallway that led out of the clubhouse.

“You never want a game to end like this,” Williams said. “It’s really unfortunate, but it was definitely something that has always been on my mind.”

It took him a year to return to the tour, withdrawing from three consecutive Grand Slam tournaments and prompting understandable speculation as to whether he intended to continue playing tennis.

“I didn’t retire,” he said Saturday, choosing his words with particular care. “I had no plans to be honest. He just didn’t know when he would be back. She didn’t know how he would get back. Wimbledon is obviously a great place to be, and it just worked.”

Since her last appearance at the All England Club, she has hardly rested: juggling motherhood (her daughter Olympia is now 4) and business ventures, including Serena Ventures, a venture capital firm with an emphasis on investing in companies whose Founders come from historically underrepresented backgrounds.

“A part of me feels like that’s a little bit more of my life now than tournaments,” she said of her interests outside of tennis. “When you have a venture, you have to do it all. It definitely takes literally all of my extra time. And it’s fun. I’m currently out of the office for the next few weeks, so if you email me, you’ll get the nice ‘out of office’ response. Everyone knows I’ll be back in a few weeks. But it’s good.

Williams has also parted ways with Patrick Mouratoglou, the high-profile Frenchman who has coached her for the past 10 years. Mouratoglou is now working with Simona Halep, a former World No.1 who produced perhaps the best performance of her career to defeat Williams in straight sets in the 2019 Wimbledon final.

Williams is now coached by Eric Hechtman, a former University of Miami tennis player who is the longtime director of tennis at the Royal Palm Tennis Club in Miami. He has known Williams and his older sister Venus for nearly 15 years and has been training Venus Williams since 2019.

Now Hechtman is coaching both of them, though Venus Williams, 42, has yet to play a match on tour this year and will miss Wimbledon for the first time since 2013. Hechtman said the decision to start coaching Serena Williams was took with the blessing of Venus. Although this is her first tournament with Serena, he clearly understands that the goal is not to simply show up and improve on last year, no matter how long Serena has gone without competing.

“She’s a champion, right? And she is playing Wimbledon for a reason,” she said. “Just like I think anyone who enters the tournament, her goal is to win the event. And that is our goal.”

Williams also made it clear when asked what she would consider “a good result” at Wimbledon this year.

“You already know the answer to that,” he said, smiling. “Let’s go now”.

Still, Williams was vague by design for much of Saturday’s news conference, refusing to give a precise date when she decided to play Wimbledon, saying only that she made the decision before the French Open, which began end of May.

He also moved away from political issues. Some prominent American athletes, including soccer star Megan Rapinoe and track star Allyson Feix, weighed in on Friday’s Supreme Court ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“I think it’s a very interesting question,” he said. “I don’t have any thoughts that I’m ready to share at this time about that decision.”

It was unclear why Williams chose not to respond. She is a Jehovah’s Witness, a religious faith whose members identify as Christians and who believe the Bible teaches them to remain politically neutral. But Williams did not cite her religion on Saturday as a reason to reserve her opinion.

Her reticence was in stark contrast to 18-year-old American Coco Gauff, who appeared in the main interview room later that day. Gauff, like another of the young tennis stars, Naomi Osaka, has been keen to use her platform to speak out on social issues and called for an end to gun violence during the French Open on her way to the final. earlier this month.

“Obviously I am disappointed in the decision,” Gauff said of the Supreme Court ruling. “Obviously I feel bad for the women of the future and the women of now, but I also feel bad for those who protested this I don’t know how many years ago, but who protested this and are alive to see that decision reversed.”

Gauff added: “I feel like we’re almost going backwards.”

But he urged activism. “I still want to encourage people to use their voice and not get too bummed out by this because we can definitely make a change and hopefully change will happen.”

Williams also demurred when asked about Wimbledon’s decision to exclude Russian and Belarusian players this year due to the war in Ukraine. The suspended list includes Sasnovich, the Belarusian who faced Williams last year on Center Court.

“Another heavy topic that involves a lot of politics, from what I understand, and government,” Williams said. “I’m going to walk away from that.”

What he will do at Wimbledon is to return to Grand Slam tennis. Her first-round match against World No. 113 Harmony Tan of France is scheduled for Tuesday, most likely on Center Court. And while Williams, longtime No. 1, is now ranked in the four figures (1,204), she will be the favorite on the grass despite her layoff.

She is back, no doubt. The question is, for how long? Asked if this was his last Wimbledon, Williams stayed in tune with his mood from Saturday: elusive.

“You know, I don’t know,” he said. “I can only tell you that I am here. Who knows where I’ll show up next? You just have to be ready.”

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