The Associated PressINDIAN WELLS, Calif. (AP) — Walking on court for the first match of her latest comeback, Serena Williams allowed herself a rare smile. This time, tennis is different for the 23-time major winner.
What didn’t change is Williams winning.
She beat Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan 7-5, 6-3 in the first round of the BNP Paribas Open on Thursday night after a 14-month layoff for the birth of her first daughter.
“I almost cried before the match,” Williams said. “I texted Alexis, I was like, is it normal that I want to cry? I really missed her, but playing at night really helped because I know she goes to bed and she goes to sleep. I can’t like play with her right now.”
With new husband and Reddit co-found Alexis Ohanian looking on, Williams played from behind until breaking Diyas in the 11th game of the first set. Diyas netted a forehand and Williams yelled, “Come on!” as the crowd cheered.
“Right now, for this particular tournament, I’m really just trying to take it easy and not put so much pressure or stress or expectation on myself,” she said. “I feel like it’s one of the few times I’ve been able to do that.”
Williams has been away since winning the 2017 Australian Open early in her pregnancy. She gave birth to Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. six months ago.
Williams is playing at Indian Wells under a protected ranking of 22nd. She hasn’t been unseeded at a tournament since 2011 in Cincinnati.
“I’m playing with nothing to lose, I only can gain,” she said. “For me, it’s a real joy to be out here.”
The half-full stadium warmly greeted Williams, with many fans giving her a standing ovation as she entered.
Williams served a love game capped by a 100-mph ace in her first service game. She had break points in the first and fifth games but couldn’t convert. She started hitting harder and her familiar grunting returned when she tied the set 5-all.
Diyas and Williams traded service breaks early in the second set. Williams then broke her opponent again en route to winning the final five games in front of the half-full stadium. She smiled as she walked to the net, and her family gave her a standing ovation.