Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic will make their long-awaited returns to action in Abu Dhabi this weekend, with the Mubadala World Tennis Championship providing a first real insight into how prepared they are for the new season.
Both have been part of an all-star cast on the sidelines in recent months, with Andy Murray, Victoria Azarenka and Stan Wawrinka among those also gearing up for a comeback in the coming weeks.
American great Williams has not featured since the Australian Open – a tournament she won while eight weeks pregnant – and she only gave birth to her first child in September.
Serena Williams Grand Slam wins
Australian Open (7 wins): 2003, 2005. 2007, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2017
French Open (3 wins): 2002, 2013, 2015
Wimbledon (7 wins): 2002, 2003, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2016
US Open (6 wins): 1999, 2002, 2008, 2012, 2013, 2014
Most Australian Open titles (ATP)
6 – Djokovic
6 – Emerson
5 – Federer
4 – Agassi
4 – Crawford
4 – Rosewall
But on Saturday the 23-time Grand Slam winner will take on current French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in an exhibition match some four months after welcoming her daughter to the world.
Djokovic, meanwhile, has been away from the sport since retiring from his Wimbledon quarter-final clash against Tomas Berdych back in July and he since underwent surgery on a troublesome right elbow.
The pair are powerhouses of tennis, but will they be able to rediscover their magic touch? Here we take a look at what’s worth keeping an eye over the course of the weekend in Abu Dhabi…
Serena’s decision to participate in Abu Dhabi was something of a shock, with many questioning whether she would even be able to compete in the Australian Open next month.
The obvious question marks remain over her fitness. Returning to peak condition after pregnancy is a new experience for the evergreen 36-year-old and while the result against the talented 20-year-old Latvian is not of massive importance, she will quickly learn how quickly and how well she is recovering from more strenuous match play.
Should she find herself seriously fatigued after a single exhibition match, which would be more than understandable having given birth so recently, then there would be real concerns regarding her ability to go deep at a Grand Slam across a two-week period.
Murray’s own brief return against Roger Federer in Glasgow in November should serve as a warning to the Australian Open champ, with the Scot’s progress failing to take off since his defeat to the Swiss at the SSE Hydro.
Of course, such an extended time away from tennis will likely see Williams nowhere near her best on Saturday and she still has plenty of time to brush up on her shot making and physique, but a clearer picture will be painted over how realistic her chances of defending her title in Melbourne are.
Unlike Serena, the 12-time Grand Slam champion’s absence came off the back of a series of disappointing results – at least compared to the all-conquering form he displayed in 2015 and the first half of 2016 – and Djokovic faces charges of a mental collapse from several high-profile pundits.
It’s unlikely we’ll get too many answers regarding the mental state of the Serb during his two matches on Friday and Saturday but it’s a chance for Djokovic to send a clear message to his rivals that he’s back with two thumping wins.
The field of Dominic Thiem, Pablo Carreno Busta, Kevin Anderson, Roberto Bautista Agut and Andrey Rublev shouldn’t strike fear into the heart of the six-time Australian Open winner but, as with Serena, Djokovic can be expected to be somewhat rusty in his first outing since Wimbledon.
His two contests can provide the 30-year-old with valuable insight over the state of his own game in the weeks ahead of the Australian Open and Metro.co.uk understands that Djokovic will be testing out changes in his racquet having sampled several options during his pre-season training camp in Monte Carlo.
Finally, Friday’s opener against either Bautista Agut or Rublev will allow us to analyse any change in approach following his appointment of new head coach Radek Stepanek.
The Czech, who was known for his net play, will be involved in the day-to-day running of Djokovic’s operation, while super coach Andre Agassi will continue to act in a mentor role and join the team at big events on the tennis calendar.
Will there be clear stylistic alterations as a result of his new-look team – that also includes tennis analytics expert Craig O’Shannessy – and will he have made any big changes in the off season? We will have to wait and see…
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