Tennis superstar Serena Williams is pledging to return to Melbourne Park in pursuit of an eighth Australian Open crown after reluctantly withdrawing from this month’s showpiece.
The 23-time major winner and women’s titleholder gave birth to her first child last September and says she’s not yet ready for a comeback.
Williams made her decision after losing an exhibition match last week in Avu Dhabi to French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko.
“After competing in Abu Dhabi, I realised that although I am super close, I’m not where I personally want to be,” Williams said on Friday.
“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.”
Williams last year beat older sister Venus in the final before revealing she played the tournament despite being more than two months pregnant.
The 36-year-old had been desperate to defend her crown – one she cherishes as possibly her most memorable triumph – and equal Australian great Margaret Court’s all-time record 24 grand slam singles titles.
“Fun fact: my daughters initials are AO as in the Aussie open she won with me @AustralianOpen,” Williams tweeted in a touching tribute to the Open after becoming a mother.
“The memory of last year’s Open is one that I will carry with me, and Olympia and I look forward to coming back again,” Williams added on Friday.
“I appreciate the support and understanding of my fans and everyone at the Australian Open.”
Open tournament director Craig Tiley expressed his admiration for Williams’s efforts to return to the game she loves.
“The true champion Serena is has been demonstrated in the Herculean efforts she has made over the past few months in her desire to play the Australian Open,” Tiley said.
“Serena transcends the sport in the way she approaches all aspects of her life and consistently gives her all in everything she does.
“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 11th hour to make her final decision.
“We all wish her the very best and I look forward to seeing her back on court this year, and can’t wait to welcome her back to the Australian Open in 2019.”
Williams’ scratching comes less than 24 hours after fellow former world No.1 Andy Murray withdrew from the men’s event with a chronic hip injury.
Several other big names, including top-ranked Rafael Nadal, six-time champion Novak Djokovic and 2014 winner Stan Wawrinka, also remain under fitness clouds 10 days out from the year’s first grand slam event at Melbourne Park.
Williams’ absence, while disappointing for fans and officials, raises the prospect of another first-time grand slam winner making their mark in Melbourne.
Latvian trailblazer Ostapenko in Paris and American Sloane Stephens at the US Open both won their first majors last year while Williams was sidelined.
Five different players also shared the top ranking in 2017 after Williams was dethroned during her hiatus.
Romanian Simona Halep, the current world No.1, and Dane Caroline Wozniacki are jostling for women’s top seeding status in Melbourne.