On Monday, Serena Williams took out Rebecca Peterson, 6-4, 6-2, to advance to the second round of the Italian Open.
Over the course of her storied career, Serena Williams has experienced more success at the Italian Open than any other clay-court tournament, winning the event four times.
Playing in Rome this year for the first time since her most recent title run, in 2016, Williams enters with some challenges ahead of her—both in the form of a difficult draw, and where she is with her own game.
As she’s shown time and again, one thing is for certain: Williams can never be counted out, despite the odds not looking like they are in her favor.
Lengthy layoffs have had minimal impact on Williams, as she’s been quick to get back in a groove. The greatest example of this has been her most recent comeback last year. Upon returning to the tour after taking time to become a mother and focus on family, Williams reached two Grand Slam finals, at Wimbledon and the US Open.
The seeds for another major were actually planted in clay earlier in 2018, when the former world No. 1 advanced to the round of 16 at the French Open. However, an arm injury forced her out of the tournament before her fourth-round match against Maria Sharapova, whom she had defeated 18 consecutive times.
A positive run through the Slams promised bigger things to come in 2019, and she entered the Australian Open on a mission. In her first three matches in Melbourne, the seven-time champion dropped only nine games, then won a tight three-setter against then-world No. 1 Simona Halep, living up to her status as one of the favorites.
But in the quarterfinals, Williams’ dream of capturing her 24th Grand Slam singles title came to an end as Karolina Pliskova rallied from the brink of defeat—a 5-1 third-set deficit—for the stunning victory. On her first match point, Williams rolled her ankle and was never able to recover. Save for an unlucky twist, Williams could have possibly been the last woman standing and been well on her way to reclaiming her spot at the top of the women’s game.
When she returned to the court in Indian Wells, Williams won her opener against longtime rival Victoria Azarenka in what was considered one of the best matches of the short season. In the next round, though, against two-time major winner Garbine Muguruza, she was forced to retire due to health reasons. At the next stop on the calendar, the Miami Open, the queen of South Beach—with eight titles there—took to the sidelines again after winning her first match.
It’s been nearly two months since Williams has competed in a tournament, and now the WTA our is in the home stretch of clay-court warm-up events before the year’s second Grand Slam at Roland Garros. In the past, Williams has won the game’s most prestigious events with what appears to be minimal preparation, as far as tournament play goes. Rome could be the perfect venue for her latest return, as she’s followed up the title there with triumph in Paris twice in her career: in 2002 and 2013.
No one will be ceding the title to her in the Italian capital, though, and her path to victory is filled with roadblocks. In the second round, she could face the winner of the match between her older sister Venus and Elise Mertens, both of whom are unseeded. Serena Williams is drawn to face Sloane Stephens, last year’s French Open runner-up, in the round of 16, then could see the 2019 Roland Garros champion Halep in the quarters.
It wouldn’t get any easier for Williams as Kiki Bertens, who just captured the Madrid Open title, looms in the semifinals, provided she gets past world No. 1 Naomi Osaka, who’s been rapidly improving on clay.
It’s an arduous path to Rome title No. 5 for the 11th-ranked player in the world, and given that she hasn’t played a tournament for a while, some rust could have crept in. As has been demonstrated repeatedly, though, Williams has shown she can shake it off, earning contender status no matter how long she’s been away.