Serena Williams, a four-time gold medalist, indicated Sunday at Wimbledon that she would not play in the Olympics in Tokyo next month.
“I’m actually not on the Olympic list,” she said. “If so, then I should not be on it.”
The decision was not unexpected. Williams had expressed hesitancy about playing in Tokyo in part because of the travel restrictions that might have prevented her from taking her daughter, Olympia, with her to the games.
“I would not be able to go function without my 3-year-old around,” Williams said earlier this season. “I think I would be in a depression. We’ve been together every day of her life.”
Olympic officials have not made clear publicly what exceptions might be made for athletes who wish to come to Tokyo with their children. It was unclear Sunday whether that was the decisive factor for Williams, who is 39 and set to play at Wimbledon for the 20th time.
“There’s a lot of reasons that I made my Olympic decision,” she said at a news conference. “I don’t feel like going into them today. Maybe another day. Sorry.”
Mary Joe Fernandez, an Olympic gold medalist and former captain of the U.S. women’s Olympic tennis team, said she felt Williams’ choice “makes sense.”
“Having been with Serena both in London and again in Rio, I know how much the Olympics means to her, I know how proud she is of her medals,” Fernandez said. “I’m sure it wasn’t an easy decision for her.”
Fernandez, an ESPN analyst, said she believes Williams’ priority is winning a 24th Grand Slam singles title, which would tie Margaret Court’s record.
“Her focus right now is on trying to win the majors,” Fernandez said. “It’s a tough summer if you go from here to Tokyo to the U.S. Open. Maybe she’s trying to pace herself.”
Williams has been one of the most successful Olympians in tennis, winning gold medals in doubles with her 41-year-old sister, Venus, in 2000, 2008 and 2012. She also won the singles at the 2012 Olympics in London, where the tennis event was held on the same grass courts as Wimbledon.
It is unclear whether Williams’ sister might be chosen to play doubles in Tokyo. Ranked 111th, she is far outside the singles entry cutoff.
Williams’ singles victory in London was perhaps the most dominant performance of her career. She did not come close to dropping a set in six matches and overwhelmed four players who had been ranked No. 1: Jelena Jankovic, Caroline Wozniacki, Victoria Azarenka and, in the final, Maria Sharapova.
“Those last couple of matches, she played almost perfect tennis between the serve and the groundstrokes and the returns,” Fernandez said. “Serena barely lost games. It was just this laser focus and some of the best tennis she’s played.”
Williams, who missed the 2004 Olympics because of an injury, was asked Sunday whether it would be difficult for her to miss the games.
“In the past, it’s been a wonderful place for me,” she said. “I really haven’t thought about it, so I’m going to keep not thinking about it.”
The top four American women in the singles rankings are eligible to compete in Tokyo. Sofia Kenin, Jennifer Brady and 17-year-old Coco Gauff have all confirmed that they intend to take part, although Kenin has struggled this season and Brady is out of Wimbledon with plantar fasciitis. Williams’ decision opens a slot for Jessica Pegula with the U.S. team expected to be announced by July 5.
Most of the leading players in women’s tennis are expected to play in the Olympics, including top-ranked Ashleigh Barty and second-ranked Naomi Osaka. Victoria Azarenka, a Belarusian star who is also the mother of a young child, has indicated she will play singles and doubles (with Aryna Sabalenka) in Tokyo.
But Williams is not alone in choosing to skip the games. Rafael Nadal, a two-time Gold medalist, will not take part — as have five other top 20 men’s players: Dominic Thiem, Roberto Bautista Agut, Denis Shapovalov, Casper Ruud and Cristian Garín. Roger Federer, ranked eighth at age 39, said Saturday that he would decide on the Olympics after Wimbledon.
Reilly Opelka and John Isner, the two highest-ranked American men’s singles players, will also skip Tokyo. Isner is 36 and reached the quarterfinals in singles at the 2012 Olympics. Opelka, 23, would have been a first-time Olympian. Both have chosen to focus on the summer hard courts season in North America, including the U.S. Open, which begins Aug. 30 in New York.
“For me, the Olympics were the highlight of my career,” Fernandez said. “So I can’t imagine being eligible and not going, especially if you haven’t been there before. So I would assume the majority would sign up for it, but it’s a tricky year. With COVID and everything, it’s not ideal, to say the least.”
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