Why clay might be Serena Williams' best chance to get back on track

Tennis fans worldwide are on tenterhooks, wondering when Serena Williams will decide to play competitive tennis again. The new mother hasn't said anything about her plans following a 2-2 record at the two big U.S. hard-court events in March. But she has reiterated that she isn't finished yet.

"I feel like there is one day, I am going to wake up and I am going to say, 'I'm done,'" Williams recently said on Bloomberg Business News radio. "I don't know when that will be, but I will know the feeling, and I don't have that feeling yet."

As the Open era's most prolific Grand Slam singles champion, Williams has earned the right to do as she darn well pleases, to return whenever she wants, on her own terms, or not return at all. The legacy has become inviolable.

But there's a problem with that, too, even if it's a good problem to have. Williams is a living icon. The expectations, including her own, are of a different magnitude than if she were just another great player.

Just as Williams knows that one day she will wake up and think, "I'm done," there will be a day in the near future before a tournament when she wakes up and thinks, "I'm ready." On that day, the working caveats -- I'm not fit enough yet, not focused enough, not eager enough -- will no longer be relevant. She will be on the verge of finding out exactly where she stands in a game that cares nothing about the past.

So this might be the best time for Williams to prepare for that "ready" day. The clay-court season is upon us, and it offers something only the summer hard-court season can match: a nice, smooth run-up to a Grand Slam event, the French Open.

The events leading up to the grand finale at Roland Garros are orderly steppingstones sunk into the red clay. It is already underway in Lugano and Bogota; Istanbul, Stuttgart and Prague are in the offing, leading up the ones that ought to be of greatest interest to Williams: Madrid (a Premier Mandatory combined event), Rome and then the French Open.

Clay is ideal for playing your way into shape. A 36-year-old can really appreciate how easy the soft, forgiving surface is, how conducive it is to grooving strokes in long rallies. Those long points also get a player habituated to the fierce, sustained concentration that winning demands.

This, too, should go into the equation: Williams has improved significantly on clay in the late stages of her career. Not coincidentally, her skill advanced at the same pace as her growing love affair with Paris, which peaked when she hammered out a 6-4, 6-4 win over Maria Sharapova in the 2013 French Open final.

By that time, Williams was spending a good deal of time in her own Paris apartment. She was reshaping her expectations and clay game under the guidance of French coach and friend Patrick Mouratoglou. In 2013, Williams made her on-court speeches to the crowd in French and described her ultimate victory as "incroyable."

The win was her first singles championship in Paris since her only other one, 11 years earlier in 2002. It was the payoff as well as the product of many years spent dutifully showing up for the two major clay-court tune-ups (Madrid and Rome) and also playing additional events on the dirt. Williams went on to play two French Open finals in the next three years. She won again in 2015 and left the court the beaten finalist in her last attempt in Paris, in 2016.

Since 2013, Williams has won as many Grand Slam singles titles at Roland Garros as anywhere else.

"I don't know what clicked or didn't click," Williams said at Roland Garros in 2014. "I grew up on hard courts, and then when I turned 10, I played only clay until I turned pro. I have the capability of playing on clay, so I don't know why I wasn't more consistent on clay before. I guess (it's) better late than never, right?"

Williams is 60-12 at Roland Garros, an outstanding 18-1 with two titles in Rome. Her record in Madrid is 20-3 with two titles. That's a grand total of 98-16. Counting other spring clay events, Williams has well over 100 wins in less than a decade, or from the age of 25 onward.

A significant presence on the clay circuit might make things a little complicated on the domestic front. Maybe she'll decide the sacrifice of plugging away for consecutive weeks far from home isn't worth the payoff.

You can bet she's having a conversation of that kind in her heart right now. But that can't go on forever, and time waits for no one. Not even the great Serena Williams.