Serena already plotting her post-baby domination

Midway through this year's French Open the list of active female Grand Slam champions had already been ground into the red dust, setting the stage for Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia to become the first unseeded player to win the Roland Garros title in tennis's open era.

It marked the first time in 40 years that no major winners advanced to the French Open quarterfinals.

The most decorated champion of the open era? She was in Paris, too - plotting her return. 

Serena Williams, six months pregnant, showed up in the leafy confines of the 16th Arrondissement to cheer on her sister, Venus, and hobnob with friends. But it was clear that the American star arrived with a dual mission. She was in town to strategize her post-maternity return to competition.

"I'm sure she's going to come back," said her coach, the Frenchman Patrick Mouratoglou.

Mouratoglou explained that when Williams called to tell him she was expecting (with fiance and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian), she asked him in the same sentence if he would wait for her. Several months later, her tune is the same, Mouratoglou said in an interview earlier this month. 

"Nothing has changed," he emphasized, recalling their hours-long conversation at Roland Garros. "We had a talk three days ago here, a long talk. Basically, she wanted to talk about what's the plan to come back. When do we start? What do we do? With who? She's really into it. Tennis is her life."

That leaves the bigger questions of how soon the American will be able to come back, and in what physical and emotional state.

Still ranked fourth in the world, Williams has not played competitively since winning her 23rd Grand Slam title at the Australian Open. The boundary-bending American is, typically, wading into unchartered territory. Only three women have won majors after giving birth: Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong, and most recently, Kim Clijsters, who captured three of her four Grand Slams after having a daughter, Jada, in 2008. 

None was older than 31 when they returned. Williams will turn 36 in September.

"But that's the story of her life," said Mouratoglou of Williams, who emerged with her sister from the tough streets of Compton, Calif., and redefined race and gender in the sport. "How many times did she impress you? And every time she finds something new to impress."

Tennis Channel commentator Lindsay Davenport agreed that Williams's combination of athleticism, drive and mental toughness is otherworldly.

"Serena's like Super Woman," said Davenport, a former world No. 1. "I don't know if the same rules apply to her."

They have their work cut out. Motherhood has changed the course of many careers.

Davenport was 31 when she returned to singles competition in 2007, a little more than a year after having the first of her four children. She had limited success, and said Monday that she had already mentally "checked out" when she resumed playing.

Belgium's Clijsters stopped playing in 2007 at age 24 and had no intention of returning. But still fit and hungry, she slowly warmed to the idea. Two years later, she was back. Clijsters, 33, said she cherished the first few months with her baby and husband, the former American basketball player Brian Lynch.

"I hope they don't rush from that moment too quickly," she said, referring to Williams and 27-year-old Victoria Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open winner and former No. 1 who had a baby boy last year and is set to return this month during the grass-court season.

Clijsters expressed no doubt that Williams could again physically compete at the highest level. Ball-striking, anticipation, movement do not fade once the baby weight is gone.

"Your body remembers a lot," Clijsters said.

More challenging could be the emotional stress of juggling a career with a child in tow. Clijsters said she felt guilty when she left Jada with a nanny so she could go practice for four or five hours.

"To me one of the hardest things was combining both," said Clijsters, who also reached the No. 1 ranking.

Williams has the advantage of already being committed to a comeback, Clijsters noted. She has the psychological and muscle memory of 23 Grand Slam victories. Clijsters won the U.S. Open in 2005 before stopping to start a family.

"I think she can do it if she puts her mind to it," Clijsters said. "She has the experience. I think that's something that helped me so much coming back. I had won a Grand Slam before."

Mouratoglou and Williams have proven a potent pair. Since teaming up at Wimbledon in 2012, they have won 10 Grand Slam crowns.

While the overall progress of her pregnancy is paramount, Mouratoglou anticipates a gradual buildup after the initial month or two after she gives birth.

"An hour or two of training a day, at most," he said.

Even now, Williams continues to hit balls to maintain some semblance of rhythm, Mouratoglou said.

Mouratoglou, who runs two tennis academies in France and comments for Eurosport, said that they may have to consider strategic shifts when she returns to take advantage of her power and serve, which many consider the best in the history of women's tennis.

"She has so many options in her game," he said.

Mouratoglou did not rule out a return as early as the Australian Open, which begins in mid-January. He said in their discussion, however, they agreed she would not suit up until Williams was prepared to win titles.

"She asked me about it, and I just told her do to everything you're allowed to do day-in and day-out and then we'll see if you're ready," he said.

Keeping her mind occupied is another issue. The hyperkinetic Williams has numerous off-court sponsors and business interests, from Nike and Gatorade to Home Shopping Network and an ownership stake in the Miami Dolphins. Forbes ranked her as the world's highest-paid female athlete in 2016 with $28.9 million in earnings.

Mouratoglou acknowledged that Williams was "bored" and predicted that she would be champing at the bit to compete.

"Believe me, after four months she will be dreaming to go to tournaments," he said.

Their obvious short-term goal is surpassing Court's record of 24 major singles titles. But Mouratoglou isn't focused on that milestone.

"I told her to forget that," he said. "Build your own record. That's more exciting."

"Twenty-four is a limit," he added. "Why put a limit? Let's go further. Maybe it's going to be 30, who knows."

It adds a new twist to a pioneering career in which circumstance, age, and now motherhood are challenges, but never ceilings.

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