By Ben Rothenberg
BERLIN—When the Wimbledon entry list came out last week, Serena Williams was not on it. This was not a surprise: Williams, 40, had not played since Wimbledon last year, where she completed only six games before stopping due to a reaggravated leg injury. Whispers that Williams was de facto retired from the sport loudened.
But then, on Tuesday, Williams posted a shins-down picture of her feet on a grass court, and the tennis world went nuts. Soon after, Wimbledon announced that Williams, a seven-time Wimbledon champion, had received a wild card into the singles main draw, which begins June 27.
But before her highly anticipated return to Wimbledon, Williams will play doubles at the WTA 500 tournament in Eastbourne, per the Lawn Tennis Association, Britain’s governing body for the sport. “The LTA is pleased to announce that Serena Williams is set to make her first tournament appearance in almost a year, when she will pair up with Tunisia’s world No. 4 Ons Jabeur for the doubles event of the LTA’s Rothesay International Eastbourne next week,” the LTA said in a statement.
Jabeur, whose dominant singles form earned her the tour lead in clay-court wins and a title at the Madrid Open, isn’t known for her doubles play, or for a close connection with Williams. So after her first-round win at the WTA 500 Berlin Tuesday, Racquet asked Jabeur how she came to be the one who will stand by Williams’ side for her unexpected return to competition.
Racquet: Can we talk about your doubles plans for next week?
Ons Jabeur: Doubles specialist! [Laughs] Oof, I’m still over the moon. I found out before the French Open, and it’s an honor and privilege to play with her. I’m actually nervous, but I’m going to try to be the doubles specialist for the next week and hopefully make zero mistakes. [Laughs] But it’s a great honor to play with such a legend, and to be able to really share the court with her is unbelievable because we never played each other and now we’re playing next to each other—we are a team. I’m really excited to be in Eastbourne next week, more and more excited than ever. Hopefully it’s going to be a great tournament for both of us.
Racquet: How did this come about?
Ons Jabeur: My coach, he’s in contact with her coach, Eric [Hechtman]. [Ed. note: Eric Hechtman, who had previously coached Venus Williams, is working with Serena during this comeback; her former coach Patrick Mouratoglou left Williams when her comeback looked uncertain and now works with Simona Halep.] And yeah, I mean, “Would I play doubles with Serena?” I mean, obviously the answer was yes. She was coming back; I didn’t know where. I wasn’t sure, actually, to play at Eastbourne. But now I’m 100 percent sure I will go, just for doubles. [Laughs]
Racquet: Do you know Serena well at all?
Ons Jabeur: We talked to each other a few times. She’s very nice, especially when she was with her daughter. I was trying to speak French a little with her; she could speak really good French. And we had a moment when she was pregnant. I said, “Congratulations,” and she said, “Thank you, Ons.” And I was like, “You know my name? Really? You know I exist?” So it’s great. I’ve practiced with Venus more, never with Serena; hopefully we will get our first practice next week.
Racquet: I’m curious, do you know why she picked you?
Ons Jabeur: I have no idea.
Racquet: Maybe she was watching Madrid like, “Damn, she’s good.”
Ons Jabeur: I hope she was, yeah. [Laughs] I mean, I’m pretty lucky that she picked me, and I’m going to try to be 100 percent on the court, and serve like Andy Roddick, make volleys like the Bryans, just trying to be really good on court.
Racquet: Is it possible you might play Eastbourne only in doubles then?
Ons Jabeur: Me, I’m playing singles as well, but the focus is on doubles now. [Laughs]
Above: Ons at the 2022 French Open. (David Bartholow)