Tennis: Serena Williams shakes off the cobwebs at Indian Wells after 15-month pregnancy layoff

Serena Williams (above) in action during her opening match against at the WTA Indian Wells event against Zarina Diyas in Indian Wells, California, on March 8, 2018.
Serena Williams (above) in action during her opening match against at the WTA Indian Wells event against Zarina Diyas in Indian Wells, California, on March 8, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS/USA TODAY SPORTS

INDIAN WELLS, UNITED STATES (AFP) - Serena Williams shook off the rust from a 15-month layoff due to pregnancy to win her opening match at the WTA Indian Wells event with a 7-5, 6-3 victory over Zarina Diyas.

The unseeded Williams was the top-ranked player in the world when she began her long layoff following her victory at the 2017 Australian Open, where she was already expecting daughter Alexis Olympia who was born in September.

After a couple of exhibitions and a Fed Cup doubles match, Williams said on Thursday (March 8) she was ready to hit with the big guns on the WTA Tour again.

"I am not going to be there today or next week, but I will get there and I do have my goals," Williams said. "At some point, I need to jump and fly. Every day is going to be a challenge. I know I will overcome it. It takes time to get back."

Williams entered the court on Thursday night 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.

After that, it was a matter of gradually asserting herself by taking control of the rallies, and she got the first break of serve in the 11th game of the first set and secured the set in the next game on her third set point.

Williams said throughout the pre and post-natal period, she tried to maintain a certain level of fitness.

The 36-year-old American is the star attraction in Indian Wells, but behind her popularity this year was the mystery surrounding her match fitness and ball-striking ability.

The 23-time Grand Slam winner answered some of those questions on Thursday by blasting four aces and winning 63 per cent of her first-serve points.

"From zero to Serena, I am with the S," she said. "I have got a ways to go. It is a journey for me and I am just going to go for it. I wanted to stay fit and just be ready. I wasn't ready to retire yet even though it would have been a great way to retire."

Williams also won a whopping 64 per cent of her second serves and broke Diyas, ranked 53rd in the world, five times in the 92-minute match.

Williams set up a second round match with 29th seeded Kiki Bertens. A win over Bertens could see her face older sister Venus in the third round.

Venus, who is seeded eighth, enjoyed a first-round bye and will play Romania's Sorana Cirstea in her opening match.

The birth of Williams's daughter was followed by life-threatening complications that scuppered her plans to defend her Australian Open title in Melbourne.

Serena had boycotted Indian Wells, with Venus, for 14 years after she was booed in the 2001 final.

She returned in 2015 but had to pull out before her semi-final against Simona Halep with a knee problem.

In 2016, she lost in the final to Victoria Azarenka, 4-6, 4-6.

Indian Wells features a star-studded women's field in a tournament that looks wide open for the taking by any of the top-10 seeds, led by world No. 1 Halep.

Like Williams, Azarenka also ended a long pregnancy layoff by competing in the final match of the Indian Wells on Thursday night.

The Belarusian, who needed a wildcard to get into the draw, cruised past Britain's Heather Watson 6-4, 6-2.