Serena Williams is barely two matches into her comeback from maternity leave but she already has to face her sister Venus in the Indian Wells third round on Monday.
The 23-time Grand Slam champion posted a second victory in as many matches in her first tournament since the 2017 Australian Open, overcoming a stern challenge from Dutch No. 29 seed Kiki Bertens 7-6 (5), 7-5 in the second round on Saturday.
A champion at Indian Wells in 1999 and 2000, Serena is bidding to become the first woman to win the trophy here three times but the 36-year-old’s thoughts are far from that at the moment as she attempts to build back her stamina and form following a 13-month absence.
“I have a long way to go. I have such a long way to go,” Serena said after her one-hour 52-minute win over Bertens.
“It definitely felt better than the first round, but, I mean, I’m still a little rusty. I’m still making errors that I don’t normally make. But I call this a trial run. Even with the baby, like, a trial run of traveling with the baby and all of this is just so new to me. Yeah, I’m getting there.”
The Williams sisters will face off for a 29th time on tour and for the first time at Indian Wells. The meeting comes 17 years after they were supposed to clash in the semi-finals of the 2001 edition but Venus withdrew with tendinitis, giving Serena a walkover into the final.
The aftermath of that day has been recounted countless times, and the Williams sisters, who suffered abuse from the crowd due to Venus’ withdrawal and received accusations that their father fixed their matches, boycotted Indian Wells from 2002 until they returned to the event in 2015.
It is close to two decades later and the Williamses will finally square off at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
“I honestly never thought about it,” said Serena about the fact the match against Venus never happened until now.
“I would prefer to play someone else, anybody else, literally anybody else, but it has to happen now. So it is what it is…
“I really abhor every time we play, but I do enjoy the battle when I’m out there. It’s just afterwards I don’t like it as much.”
Venus booked her place in the third round with a 6-3, 6-4 success over Romanian Sorana Cirstea.
The older Williams sister, seeded N0. 8 this week, was in the stands for Serena’s opening round win over Zarina Diyas on Thursday and was impressed by what she saw.
“She looked like she never lost a step, really, and was controlling the match. Her opponent played really, really, really well, to be honest. Probably produced maybe the best tennis of her career. For Serena to win against someone that inspired and free is a great, great way to come back,” said the 37-year-old Venus.
Serena admits it feels like it’s too soon to play someone of Venus’ calibre in just her third match back but the ex-world No. 1 is hoping she’ll be ready for it. Serena is playing under a protected ranking of 22 and is unseeded in a tournament for the first time since Cincinnati in 2011.
“I have to play a seed regardless, sooner than later most times for the next couple of tournaments. So I have to be ready, you know. Whether it’s Venus or anyone else, it’s going to be someone,” said Serena.
“Obviously I wish it was anybody else in the draw, literally anybody, but that’s okay. Just have to go out there and see how I am and do my best.”
Serena, who delivered her first child, Olympia, last September, said she “almost cried” before her first round last Thursday because she was missing her daughter. She handled that better in her second match on Saturday.
“I’m doing much better today. I left pretty early, left like around 11:00. It’s 6:00, and I haven’t come close to tears today, so that’s good,” said Serena. “I definitely miss her. I might start coming to press on time now, because all I can think about is wanting to get back as fast as I can.”
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