Serena Williams dealt a double-blow to tennis-hungry fans by withdrawing from consecutive big-ticket combined tournaments that begin Wednesday at Indian Wells. But there is method to her March Madness.
Williams withdrew because of the continued problems with her left knee, the same joint that was said to hamper her at last year's US Open, where she fell in the semifinals against Karolina Pliskova.
The withdrawal took even tennis insiders by surprise, because Williams showed no signs of wobbly knees when she ripped her way to the Australian Open title and reclaimed the No. 1 ranking barely a month ago. Presumably, she won't get too bent out of shape about not getting the chance to play a single match as No. 1 again before the ranking reverts to the woman she stripped it from, Angelique Kerber. It was Williams' seventh turn at No. 1.
Williams, 35, has repeatedly said she's now in it just for the major titles, echoing the sentiments of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and others who care less about their ranking and leapfrogging rivals than they do about their legacy. It's about the massive adrenaline hit that comes from blowing the minds of skeptics and critics, not climbing the slippery pole of the rankings.
Besides, while Williams is more or less a hometown favorite in Miami, Indian Wells has never been particularly kind to her. That's true even if you discount the ugly incident that caused Serena and her sister Venus to boycott the event for more than a decade starting in 2002.
When Serena made her peace with the tournament and returned to play in 2015, she survived an emotional roller coaster to the semis. She was scheduled to play Simona Halep, but Williams withdrew with a right-knee injury. It was a bizarre reprisal of the incident that sparked the Williams sisters' boycott 14 years earlier. On that occasion, Venus pulled out before her semifinal against Serena with a knee injury, triggering an angry reaction from a shockingly hostile crowd.
Last year, Serena looked strong through the tournament but played a curiously flat match in the final, losing to Victoria Azarenka 6-4, 6-4.
Strange but true: Williams has won every Grand Slam event more often than she has won Indian Wells. Can you blame her for thinking, who needs it? Conversely, Williams, who resides in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, has won Miami eight times. Can you blame her for being sick of driving up and down I-95 to Crandon Park on Key Biscayne day after day at the end of March?
More to the point, the two combined events (for the WTA, they are in the highest level, Premier Mandatory) offer a king's ransom in prize-money and bags full of rankings points -- none of which Williams really needs. For her, the winter/spring hard-court season effectively began and ended with the Australian Open. What does she need hard courts for if the next high-value target for her is the French Open? She won't be trying to win another one on hard courts until the US Open begins in August.
Williams has 23 Grand Slam singles titles. She is probably the greatest singles player of all time. The only active person who is in an even remotely comparable position to Williams is Federer. But Williams doesn't love tennis the same way that he does. Federer is completely at ease and adapted to his role as a tennis icon. Williams, by contrast, often wanted to be more. And she has suffered, sometimes grievously these past few years, in a way that Federer has not.
The sport has taken a toll, visible in her actions and attitude on the court, in the drama, but perhaps also in her physical breakdowns. Williams is the same age as Federer, but she seems more emotionally spent, and she's certainly more banged up at the moment. And that's only going to get more pronounced as she gets older.
It's wise for Williams to take time off to get fully healthy. At her age and with her résumé, she has earned the right to play exactly as much -- or little -- as she wants. But her particulars also mean that the more time she takes off, the greater the risk of injury and emotional conflict when she faces the stress of intense competition again.
It's might seem like a no-win situation for a woman who has won it all, but as always, it would be crazy to bet against her when she returns.