Serena returns – in Abu Dhabi

New mother Serena Williams hasn’t yet confirmed her return to action at next month’s Australian Open.

But on Christmas Eve, some three weeks before the start of the first Grand Slam of the season, there’s a sign of hope.

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The 36-year-old Williams will play an exhibition against French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko on the final day of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi on Dec. 30.

That exhibition event once boasted Grand Slam champions Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Stan Wawrinka among its participants. But it now is down to just one – Djokovic.

The addition of Williams as a marquee name is an encouraging sign given the area of the world in which it will unfold.

It is the first time the all-male, six-player exhibition has featured a match involving two women. That’s part of a minor but still noteworthy trend over the last 12 months.

It joins a couple of other recent exhibitions involving women at all-male events. Venus Williams played Genie Bouchard at the Atlanta ATP tournament last July. And in February, Bouchard and Sloane Stephens will join veterans John McEnroe and James Blake at an exhibition to kick off the New York Open.

Beyond that, though, the news can be interpreted – at the very least – as a sign that Williams is closer to a return to tournament action.

The canned press-release quote doesn’t go that far, though.

“I am delighted to be returning to the court in Abu Dhabi for the first time since the birth of my daughter in September. The Mubadala World Tennis Championship has long marked the beginning of the men’s global tennis season and I am excited and honoured to be making my comeback as part of the first women to participate in the event. I look forward to seeing the fans in Abu Dhabi at the 10th Edition of the Championship very soon.”

Ostapenko, who layed an exhibition in Hua Hin, Thailand this weekend, also had a quote.

“I am thrilled to be playing in Abu Dhabi at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship. This will be the first time that women have taken part in the event and it is a huge honour to be part of that history after watching the tournament for many years. Last season was really incredible for me and I cannot wait to continue the start of my new season at such an amazing event.”

(These press-release quotes are pretty entertaining, aren’t they? There’s almost no chance the women actually said these exact things).

Will she, or won’t she?

Williams has not played a competitive match since she defeated her sister Venus in the Australian Open women’s singles final 11 months ago.

She was about two months’ pregnant at the time. 

The longtime world No. 1 is officially entered in the Australian Open. Tournament director Craig Tiley has made encouraging, near-definitive statements that she will indeed play. But there has been no confirmation from the lady herself.

Williams’ daughter, Alexis Olympia, will be 4 1/2 months old when the Australian Open begins.

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