Serena Williams marked her return to the sport with a straight-sets win over Kazakhstan’s world No. 53 Zarina Diyas to reach the second round in Indian Wells on Thursday.
The 23-time Grand Slam champion posted a 7-5, 6-3 win in one hour and 33 minutes showing impressive form in her first WTA match since January 2017.
Her comeback coincided with International Women’s Day and Serena said it made the moment extra special.
“It was meant to be, I feel,” she said on court after her victory.
“Thank you guys for coming out, it was incredible. It’s been over a year, and a kid later. I get to go home to her now so I’m excited about that. But thanks for supporting me.”
Stepping on a court for her first competitive singles match in 404 days, Serena was met with roars from the near-sellout crowd.
Serena is the last American woman to win this tournament, back in 2001. She entered the match having never lost a set in either of her previous two matches against the 24-year-old Kazakh.
Making her sixth appearance at the tournament – boycotted Indian Wells from 2002 to 2014 – Serena is a two-time champion here in the California desert.
She is bidding to become the first woman to win Indian Wells three times.
Playing under a protected ranking of 22, Serena is unseeded at a tournament for the first time since Cincinnati in 2011.
It was a nervy start from Serena, who slammed back-to-back unforced errors on her first two points but showed immediate signs of her old self when she fired a brilliant return for 30-15.
A backhand return winner gave Serena her first break point of the match but she sent a backhand long to see it slip away and Diyas held for 1-0.
“Welcome home, Serena,” bellowed a supporter in response.
Diyas saved four break points, climbing back from 0-40 down to hold for 3-2.
The world No. 53 was putting pressure on the Serena serve, but the American stayed the course as she made it 4-4, giving out a scream of relief on game point.
“Come on Serena you can do it,” yelled a fan from the stands.
She certainly looked like she could as she broke for 6-5 to put herself in the position to serve for the opening set.
She aced to start the service game and sealed the set on her third opportunity.
The 36-year-old broke at love in game three of the second set to lead 2-1. But her advantage did not last as Diyas finally got her first break point of the match and converted for 2-all.
The next game was a tug of war but Serena eventually got the break on a Diyas double fault. Still the Kazakh pegged her back and they were on level terms again.
Serena screamed in frustration as the break-fest continued with the American inching ahead 4-3. It was the fifth consecutive game to go against serve.
The sequence of breaks finally ended as Serena held for 5-3 and she wrapped up the win minutes later.
There’s a famous field at Indian Wells that players use to warm up for their practices and matches.
During the day, it is flooded with players stretching, jogging, kicking around a football, and doing whatever it is they need to do to prepare for stepping on the court.
Everything enclosed within the perimeter of that field feels like a sports version of the Truman Show and we’re on the sidelines watching in amusement.
I watched Novak Djokovic go through a meticulous stretching routine ahead of his practice session with Kevin Anderson this morning and he seems in good spirits. He chatted to tournament director Tommy Haas as he was warming up, asking him about ticket sales and whatever it is a tournament director takes care of at an event like this.
SHOWBIZ FOR ONE NIGHT
Elsewhere, Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza spoke to reporters about her experience going to the Oscars followed by the Vanity Fair party.
The Spaniard stunned in a black dress at the Academy Awards red carpet and later told us why she’s happy to stick to sports, away from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.
“It was good, I’m not going to lie. It was a very good experience. It’s not something you go to everyday, so I didn’t want to miss it. I don’t think I’m going to be impressed ever again for whatever camera or red carpet,” she said laughing.
“I prefer more sports for sure. It’s much more simple and clear. It was actually nice to be a part of that die. But it’s a very different world. Sports is much easier, respectful, I don’t know.
“It’s show business. You have to be cool, and do some crazy things I’m sure to be noticed, it’s just different. For us we just go out there and perform and we do our thing. We don’t really depend on who is going to pick, or who wants me in the movie and these kind of things. What we do, it’s just me, it’s in my hands.”
Roger Federer is back at Indian Wells as the defending champion, the world No. 1, and a 20-time Grand Slam winner.
After two decades of competing as a professional and breaking almost every conceivable tennis record with a style of play that is more art than sport, you’d think Federer has nothing left to prove, right?
The Swiss legend admits there is always a certain level of pressure when he’s competing, and it’s that feeling that drives him to continue playing at the age of 36.
“You always have something to prove. As much as I’d like to tell you like ‘it doesn’t matter how I play here’, I didn’t come here to lose first round 2 and 2. When you have break point you’re not going to tell yourself ‘who cares, I’m just going to go for it’, it’s hard to think this way,” Federer told reporters at Indian Wells on Thursday.
“Because you do care about the moments, you do care about the fans, what they think, how they portray you and you care for the result, you care for so many things.
“As little pressure there seems to be, there is always on the top guys, you’re always the centre of attention and expectations are there. I’m definitely in a good place. I also feel I have less to prove today than in the past but that doesn’t mean I don’t want it badly. And I need to have that drive to be successful.”
Federer is the No. 1 seed at Indian Wells for the first time since 2010. He regained the top ranking three weeks ago after winning the title in Rotterdam, getting back to the summit for the first time since November 2012.
“It feels very different,” Federer joked about how he felt now that the No. 1 ranking is back next to his name. “No, the same.
“Just the feeling of getting back to world No. 1 is deeply gratifying because today when you’re older you know how much work you’ve put into it.
“Whereas, let’s say in 2004 when I finally got to world No. 1 it was such a relief because I had blew my chance earlier in Montreal months earlier I lost 6-7 in the third against Roddick, I thought like ‘oh man hopefully I’ll still get to world No. 1 one day’. And then when I finally got it I just felt like I probably deserved it, won a lot, played a lot and won the World Tour Finals at the end of the year in Houston.
“And it just kind of happens. Usually it’s connected a Slam as well, so this one was different because I went to chase it in Rotterdam. It was all about world No. 1 when I went to Rotterdam and I think by winning it there and then going back home and celebrating at home, keeping celebrations going and knowing what I had to do to get to world No. 1 so it felt very different yes, but waking up in the morning I feel the same like world No. 2 or world No. 17 like a few years back.”
Five-time Indian Wells champion Federer begins his title defence against either Ryan Harrison or Federico Delbonis on Saturday.
He will have to reach at least the semi-finals in order to hold onto the No. 1 ranking after Indian Wells. Otherwise, the injured Rafael Nadal will replace him at the top following this tournament.