INDIAN WELLS (California) • Serena Williams conceded she had been rusty on her return to professional tennis after more than a year away from the game, but still did enough to secure a 7-5, 6-3 win over Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan in the first round of the BNP Paribas Open on Thursday.
Williams, who had not played a competitive singles match since winning the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant, chalked up 27 unforced errors with 34 winners to defeat her 53rd-ranked opponent in front of an enthusiastic California crowd.
The 36-year-old entered the court to a loud ovation, with many in the half-full stadium standing and applauding as she came out of the tunnel for just her third appearance in Indian Wells in the last 17 years.
"It was incredible. It's been over a year and a kid later. I get to go home to her now and I'm excited about that," the American said.
"It definitely wasn't easy but it was good. I'm a little rusty but it doesn't matter. I'm just out here on this journey doing the best I can."
Williams, with husband and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian looking on, was only two points from dropping the opening set but showed the sort of poise that earned her 23 Grand Slam singles titles.
She blasted four aces and won 63 per cent of her first-serve points against Diyas, who claimed her first WTA title last year in Tokyo. Williams broke her opponent five times in the 92-minute match.
UNFORCED ERRORS 27
FIRST SERVES WON (%) 63
Williams gave birth to daughter Alexis Olympia on Sept 1, but claimed that post-childbirth health complications that included blood clots in her lungs were almost fatal.
Her husband paid tribute to her with four billboards along the highway outside Palm Springs. One of them has a photo of Williams and their daughter and carries the caption "G.M.O.A.T", denoting the phrase "greatest mother of all time".
Williams is healthy again, but skipped this year's Australian Open because she did not consider herself tournament ready.
She is unseeded at Indian Wells, which was why she had to play the first round while the seeds, including sister Venus, enjoyed a bye.
Williams faces 29th-seeded Kiki Bertens in the second round. A win over Bertens could see her face Venus in round three.
In the men's draw, Roger Federer, 36, said that even though he reclaimed the world No. 1 ranking and captured his 20th career Grand Slam title in January, he still has plenty to prove on the ATP Tour.
"As much as I like to tell you 'it doesn't matter how I play here' I didn't come here to lose first round," he said. "As little pressure as there seems to be, there is always pressure on the top guys.
"I feel that I have less to prove today than in the past, but that doesn't mean I don't want it badly."
He opens the defence of his Indian Wells title - he has won it five times - in tomorrow's second-round clash against Argentinian Federico Delbonis, who beat American Ryan Harrison 6-2, 4-6, 7-5.
The Swiss won his sixth Australian Open crown and the Rotterdam Open, taking his career singles title tally to 97. In the Open era, only American Jimmy Connors with 109 titles, has won more.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE GUARDIAN
ATP INDIAN WELLS
Day 3: StarHub Ch201, tomorrow, 3.30am