Serena Williams is cradling her baby, humming a lullaby, letting little Alexis Olympia Ohanian tug on a strand of her long hair. When nap time arrives Williams tucks in the child and reluctantly leaves for a practice session.
“Don’t call it a comeback,” she says quietly enough to not disturb the baby. “I’ve been here for years, rocking my peers, putting suckers in fear.” After she changes into workout gear and approaches the tennis court her tenderness vanishes and she pounds the ball ferociously.
“I’m gonna knock you out,” she says. “Mama said knock you out.”
All of this takes place in a 60-second advertisement from Chase and offers a peek at what life is now like for Williams, who missed last year’s U.S. Open while awaiting her daughter’s birth last Sept. 1. Williams is blissful about becoming a mother, but don’t make the mistake of thinking she has become soft. She survived an emergency cesarean section, blood clots, and complications that kept her bedridden for six weeks and still reached the Wimbledon final. Her body hasn’t completely bounced back but she is one of the favorites to win at Flushing Meadows this year.
“If anything, I have more fire in my belly,” said Williams, who will begin pursuit of a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title when she faces Magda Linette of Poland on Monday at Arthur Ashe Stadium. “It’s very difficult to describe. I thought after having a child I would be more relaxed. I think I’ve said this before, but I'm not. I work just as hard, if not harder, actually. I just feel like I take it just as serious if not more. That’s been really surprising for me.”
Williams laughed off the fuss stirred by the French tennis federation’s ban on a return of the form-fitting catsuit she wore at this year’s French Open. She wasn’t planning to pull it out again because she’s using compression tights and other ways to ward off blood clots.
“When it comes to fashion, you don’t want to be a repeat offender,” she said during a news conference.
Williams, who will be 37 next month, returned to tournament play at Indian Wells in March and reached the third round before she lost to her older sister Venus, a matchup that could happen again here in the third round. Serena, given an upgraded seeding of 17 instead of her world rank of No. 26, could later face world No. 1 Simona Halep, who will inaugurate the renovated and retractable-roofed Louis Armstrong on Monday when she plays Kaia Kanepi of Estonia. But Williams said she hasn’t looked past her first-round match.
“I don’t know my draw,” she said, “but if I want to be the best, I’m going to have to start beating these people, anyway.”
Several women will pose potential obstacles for Williams as the tournament celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Open Era, which allowed professionals to compete alongside amateurs in Grand Slam events.
Halep and No. 2 seed Caroline Wozniacki became first-time Slam winners this year, Wozniacki at the Australian Open and Halep at the French Open. No. 4 Angelique Kerber, the 2016 U.S. Open winner, defeated Williams in the Wimbledon final to highlight a strong year. “Being here, with the energy, with the great memories that I had the last years, it feels again that I’m ready to go,” Kerber said.
No. 3 Sloane Stephens is dealing with the new challenge of defending a Slam title, which she acknowledged has brought “a lot of stress, a lot of pressure.” That’s evident in her results, which include first-round losses at the Australian Open and Wimbledon but a runner-up finish at the French Open. Also in the mix are 20-year-old Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, who won the Connecticut Open after reaching the Cincinnati semifinals, and Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands, who defeated Halep for the Cincinnati title.
“You can see the level is very tough and everyone is playing at maybe the highest level,” said Halep, who lost in the first round here last year.
On the men’s side, No. 1 Rafael Nadal, No. 2 Roger Federer and resurgent Novak Djokovic have maintained their dominance — each has won a Slam this year — but the next generation might finally be ready to interrupt their reign. No. 4 Alexander Zverev of Germany, who’s 21 and just added Ivan Lendl to his coaching team, and a 20-year-old rising star, No. 15 Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, are “knocking on that door,” according to Federer, though they haven’t barged through. Defying the youngsters’ advance is 32-year-old Kevin Anderson of South Africa, a finalist in two of the last four Slams, including a loss to Nadal here last September. No. 3 Juan Martin del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open winner, remains a contender after recovering from a series of debilitating wrist injuries. The 29-year-old from Argentina defeated Federer in the Indian Wells final in March.
Nadal, Federer and Djokovic have rebounded from medical issues but Andy Murray has struggled long enough to have dropped below them. Murray, who won the first of his three career Slams at Flushing Meadows in 2012, had hip surgery early this year and isn’t seeded here. “For last 10 years or so I’ve been coming and preparing to try and win the event whereas I don’t feel that’s realistic for me this year,” he said. “It’s a slightly different mentality coming in than what I have had the last 10, 11 years of my life, so it feels a bit odd.”
Nadal, 32, is 40-3 this season with five titles. He has a good chance to make that six in New York. “I always had a great connection with the crowd here,” he said. “The crowd bring me to another level of energy.”