Serena Williams will make a surprise return to tennis at the Mubadala exhibition event in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, next Saturday, as she prepares for her Australian Open title defense in January.
The decision to play in the United Arab Emirates should virtually confirm Williams’s participation at Melbourne Park.
Williams, 36, formerly ranked No. 1 in the world, has not played since clinching a 23rd Grand Slam singles title 11 months ago. She was pregnant during that tournament and took time off to give birth to Alexis Olympia in September.
Williams will return with a match against the French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia. They will be the first women to compete in the Mubadala tournament, previously a male-only event.
“I am delighted to be returning to the court in Abu Dhabi for the first time since the birth of my daughter,” Williams said in a statement released by the tournament organizers on Sunday.
“The Mubadala World Tennis Championship has long marked the beginning of the men’s global tennis season, and I am excited and honored to be making my comeback as part of the first women to participate in the event.”
Williams has a chance to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles, although she will have to make do with a low seeding in Australia after slipping to 22nd in the rankings.
Williams’s return raises the prospect of a renewal of her lopsided rivalry with Maria Sharapova of Russia, who had her own comeback this year from a doping ban.
It also provides a lift to the Australian Open, after the two-time champion Victoria Azarenka of Belarus pulled out of the warm-up event in Auckland, New Zealand, because of a child custody battle that has prevented her from playing since Wimbledon in July.
Williams claimed her Open-era record 23rd major title by beating her older sister Venus 6-4, 6-4 in this year’s Australian Open final, a feat made all the more remarkable because she was two months pregnant.
Ostapenko, 20, broke through with a stunning French Open title, and she will take on Serena Williams for the first time.
Two athletes have withdrawn from the Mubadala event: the men’s world No. 1 player, Rafael Nadal, and the three-time Grand Slam winner Stan Wawrinka.
The six-strong men’s field in Abu Dhabi includes Novak Djokovic of Serbia, who will also be making his comeback.
Djokovic, a 12-time Grand Slam champion, has not played competitively since his quarterfinal loss in July to Tomas Berdych at Wimbledon because of an elbow injury.