WIMBLEDON — Serena Williams had just started a video on Instagram. She was holding her daughter Olympia on Wimbledon’s Centre Court, panning the empty stands the week before the event was to start and spoke deliberately to the lens.
“Once upon a time there was a girl from Compton and she had a dream of playing at Wimbledon — and her dream came true,” Williams said.
Her 9-month-old squawked and lunged for the phone.
A private moment made deliberately public, from a player who for a time fiercely guarded her privacy and her family life. But now, a follow to her Instagram account or a YouTube search yields more videos just like that one. Here she is with her husband Alexis Ohanian getting dressed for the Royal Wedding, or showing off the milky spot on her warmup jacket where her baby spit up.
This isn’t just the manicured image of a brand ambassador, this is her life.
“She knows the platform she has is so incredibly enormous,” said Rene Stubbs, an Australian on the tour when Williams started playing who has watched her game, and her personality evolve.
It may also help, Stubbs added, that her husband co-founded Reddit, a website that is all about communication. So whether it is about her family or her own experience with race, gender and injustice, Williams finds a way to express it.
“She now understands her voice,” Stubbs said.
And right now all of her ambition and hard work has brought her back to Wimbledon as the 25th seed. Williams has won seven titles here, but missed 2017 for the most obvious of reasons. With that reason now nestled in her arm, Williams tells Olympia that Wimbledon is the first tournament that she has been brought to because it is so special.
There is something special about the third major of the year, the only one that takes on the quaint character of its high-brow village. A local pub adorns windows with caricatures of past champions, including Williams, John McEnroe and Steffi Graf. Nearly every storefront makes tennis its theme, from a bathtub filled with tennis balls to the purple and white garland and vintage rackets around the entrance to The Ivy Café on the High Street.
Local tennis clubs are tucked into hidden spaces, and each spring those clubs hold lotteries to buy tickets to the grand and stern event that is the heart of British tennis.
That Williams is seeded at all is a breakthrough. She missed four straight majors due to pregnancy and the nightmare of complications that ensued, which she openly detailed for a January article in Vogue.
If any player could will herself back into contention, Williams has done it. She showcased her unparalleled competitiveness in reaching the fourth round of the French Open last month before withdrawing due to a pectoral injury.
Her ranking would not put her in line for a seed here, but Wimbledon treated the absence like maternity leave and Williams returns with an advantage earned by her years of success at the venue. Her first round opponent on opening day is 27-year-old left-hander Arantxa Rus.
It is unclear how much the pectoral injury that took her out of the French will be a factor on the grass. The week before the tournament, she didn’t practice for the two hours she booked alongside her sister Venus. On Saturday, she canceled a scheduled news conference abruptly, saying she would reschedule it for Sunday.
“It’s all about the serve,” Stubbs said. “If she’s serving well and precise she’s going to be hard to beat on grass.”
Williams and the other seeded Americans — No. 4 Sloane Stephens, No. 16 Coco Vandeweghe, No. 10 Madison Keys and last year’s runner up No. 9 Venus Williams — are all placed in the lower half of the draw.
As for other contenders in the women’s draw, No. 8 Petra Kvitova is a favorite for many. The two-time champ, Kvitova won on the grass at Birmingham leading up to Wimbledon, her fifth title of the year. Kvitova wasn’t expected to pick up a racket professionally ever again after a knife attack significantly injured her dominant left hand over a year and a half ago.
Defending champion Garbine Muguruza gets the No. 3 seed, Caroline Wozniacki is the second seed and French Open winner Simona Halep is the top seed for the 125th year of the ladies singles draw.
But it’s fair to say that most will be watching Serena Williams to see if she can match, or better her performance on the clay. After over a year off, plenty of tennis fans want to see this champion back at her most competitive as soon as possible.
Serena’s Wimbledon finals
2002def. Venus Williams7–6 (7–4), 6–3
2003def. Venus Williams4–6, 6–4, 6–2
2004lost to Maria Sharapova1–6, 4–6
2008 lost to Venus Williams5–7, 4–6
2009def. Venus Williams7–6 (7–3), 6–2
2010def. Vera Zvonareva6–3, 6–2
2012def. Agnieszka Radwańska6–1, 5–7, 6–2
2015def. Garbiñe Muguruza6–4, 6–4
2016def. Angelique Kerber7–5, 6–3