All eyes will be on Serena Williams this weekend when she makes her much-anticipated return to competition as part of the United States Fed Cup team. The U.S. will play the Netherlands in Asheville, North Carolina, beginning Saturday.
It's unknown right now whether Serena, who pulled out of the Australian Open just weeks before it began, will play singles, doubles or both, but nonetheless, her performance should be a good indication of what kind of shape she is in.
"She's such an amazing, incredible athlete," this year's Australian Open winner Caroline Wozniacki recently told ESPN.com. "I would never write her off. The thing about Serena is she's never going to come back unless she feels she's where she wants to be tennis-wise, physically and mentally."
While Williams has not played competitive tennis in more than a year, it's not the first time she's had an extended absence from the game. Most recently, she missed three consecutive majors, from 2010 to '11, after suffering life-threatening blood clots, yet she managed to reach the US Open final two months after her return.
But this time Williams will be 36 when she sets foot on the tennis court. Still, whatever her results are, most experts believe she hasn't lost her motivation.
"She wants to keep going," said ESPN tennis analyst and 18-time major winner Chris Evert. "She wants that 24th [Grand Slam title] to tie Margaret Court. I think Wimbledon would be her best chance. I don't think she wants to stay out there on the clay all day and hit balls. When you get older, you lose a little patience."
Still, despite the stellar efforts from Wozniacki, who won the WTA Finals in October and the Australian Open last month, no one else from the field has consistently stepped up.
"More players are playing better tennis, but I think nobody's really grabbed it," Martina Navratilova, also an 18-time major winner, told ESPN.com. "Consistency is lacking for [the chasing pack] to be able to compete against Serena. You need to have that in everyday results, and then you need to have it within your game when you play Serena. She may see more new faces but she's still got the field covered."
But it might take time, perhaps longer than we think for Williams to fully return to the player we last saw at the winner's podium in Melbourne last year.
"Sometimes Venus and Serena like to play their way into a tournament," Billie Jean King said. "I don't want her to think like that. She's also older, so you have to work smarter."
Twelve years ago, Evert wrote an open letter to Serena, asking her if she considered her place in history. Evert said Williams could become the greatest player in history if she dedicated herself. Now, with Williams one Slam win away from tying the all-time record, Evert believes that while the rest of the field might not be as intimidated, at least early on, Williams is so ultra-competitive that they'd better take caution.
"Whenever you doubt her, she gets mad and does it with a vengeance," Evert said.
That alone is advantage enough.