Former world number one Serena Williams said she felt on the “right track” despite a crushing loss in her long-awaited comeback to tennis on Sunday playing alongside big sister Venus in a Fed Cup dead rubber.
The duo, who have combined to win 22 doubles titles, were outgunned by the unheralded Dutch pairing of Lesley Kerkhove and Demi Schuurs who were playing in their first ever outing together.
The Williams lost 6-2, 6-3 with 36-year-old Serena appearing particularly slow on her feet and poor in her shot selection after more than a year away from the sport.
But she was determined to put on a brave face after the loss took some of the shine off the Americans’ otherwise decisive 3-1 win that booked their place in the next round against France in April.
“It felt really good to be back the court. I’ve been training and it was just exciting to be out there,” she said.
“I honestly feel better than I thought I was gonna feel, I feel like I didn’t expect to play you know like that for me. So I feel like that I’m on the right track.”
It was Serena’s first competitive match since winning her 23rd major at the 2017 Australian Open.
The American star took time away from the sport to give birth to her daughter Alexis Olympia and get married, to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian.
Both were in attendance over the weekend, seated just behind the players’ box.
Serena had previously said that her path back had been full of “ups and downs”, crediting Venus with helping her regain her rhythm.
On Sunday she was happy with the power behind her shots even if her accuracy wasn’t quite where it should be.
“I didn’t expect to have that much power on my serves,” she said. “Even though they didn’t go in, it’s just the start, I feel like that’s a very good step in the right direction.”
And she hinted she needed to juggle the demands of motherhood against her career better.
“I didn’t manage my time well,” she said. “This is literally my first time travelling with the baby and everything so I’m gonna try to do better.”
There had been speculation Serena may drop out of Sunday’s doubles match, after she did not turn up for practice in the morning with the three other US players.
But team captain Kathy Rinaldi confirmed her participation after Venus won her singles match against Richel Hogenkamp to seal overall victory for the US.
“Serena’s gonna be joining her sister Venus!” she announced, to roars of approval before Williams appeared dressed in a white top, dark blue shorts topped off with a red headband.
The Americans had enjoyed enormous support all weekend from the sold-out 5,200-capacity crowd in the mountainous city of Asheville, North Carolina, famous for its historic architecture, breweries and vibrant art scene.
The dead-rubber was supposed to be the feel-good, icing on the cake, but the Dutch players had other ideas.
“To play the two Williams sisters, it’s amazing because we won the match,” said Kerkhove, 26.
“We knew it just 30 minutes before the match. We just both gave it our all and we just had nothing to lose.”
The Dutch players’ ability to soak up the pressure was all the more remarkable given that Schuurs, the younger of the pair, was just six-years-old when Serena won her first major tournament.
Venus’ participation meant there was no room for Lauren Davis, the US’ fourth player.
The seven-time Grand Slam winner, who enjoyed a renaissance year in 2017, earlier shook off a scratchy start to prevail 7-5, 6-1 in her singles match, ensuring the US could continue their defence of the title.
Ahead of the tie, Serena had refused to be drawn on her Grand Slam hopes for the year.
She had initially targeted last month’s Australian Open and a defence of her 2017 title but struggled during an exhibition match against Jelena Ostapenko in Abu Dhabi in December, forcing her to revise her plans.
But she hinted Sunday she could make herself available for selection for the US’ next round clash in France in April.
“I think ultimately it’s up to Kathy, she has a plenty of players to chose from,” she said, referring to team captain Kathy Rinaldi. “So many Americans are
doing great, hopefully I’ll be able to be an option, I’ll be doing better by then,” she said.
Serena Williams has spoken out about the “ups and downs” she faced during her year away from competitive tennis but insists she’s now focused and ready for her quest to once more dominate her sport.
Speaking ahead of her comeback at the Fed Cup in Asheville, North Carolina, where the United States begns the defence of its crown against an unfancied Netherlands team on Saturday, the 36-year-old said she had the benefit of a new outlook following the birth of her baby daughter Alexis Olympia in September.
“There’s been a lot of ups and downs in the practice,” Williams told reporters. “It also gives me another view, it’s almost relaxing for me as I have nothing to prove. Again, just fighting against all odds to be out there again, to be competing again.”
Some of that struggle was apparent during an exhibition match at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi in December, where she lost to French Open Champion Jelena Ostapenko.
Williams shared sets with Ostapenko before losing a super tiebreaker and appeared a little slow on her feet, even as she played some fine shots.
She had initially targeted last month’s Australian Open crown for a defence of her 2017 crown, but abandoned that goal after declaring she was not “where I personally want to be.”
Perhaps wary of setting another ambitious target, Williams refused to be drawn on whether she had set her sights on the year’s remaining Grand Slams – the French Open, Wimbledon and US Open.
For now, she appears to be easing her way in and was not named as the United States’ first or second singles player in a powerful US team that includes elder sister Venus, world number 17 CoCo Vandeweghe and world number 62 Lauren Davis.
That means she isn’t scheduled to play in either of the singles matches on Saturday which are followed by reverse singles on Sunday, but will instead play in a doubles tie with team-mate Davis against Lesley Kerkhove and Demi Schuurs.
US captain Kathy Rinaldi did not rule out a change on the second day.
“As far as the lineup, we have the lineup set for tomorrow, then of course we’ll wait and see how tomorrow goes, then we’ll make our adjustments, if any,” she said.
Serena boasts a strong Fed Cup record, with a 13-0 singles mark that includes winning 26 out of her 28 sets as well as a 3-1 doubles record.
Williams’ comeback run comes as another titan of the sport — Roger Federer — is enjoying a late-career resurgence, also aged 36.
With three singles Slam titles over the past two years, Federer is now intent on reclaiming his world number one ranking, and becoming the oldest man to do so.
“Roger Federer is a really great tennis player,” Williams said of the Swiss great.
“I don’t know any tennis player that has not been inspired by him. I definitely have. Yeah, just trekking on, we keep doing the same thing.”
While Williams is bidding to emulate Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong and Kim Clijsters in winning a Grand Slam title after having a child, she acknowledged the path had not been straightforward and credited her sister with making it possible.
“I have a great partner and relationship with Venus. She’s been really, really positive,” she said.
“There’s moments that have just been hard, getting back out there doing it every day. You have to get used to that, get in the rhythm of that.”
Also credited for a newfound sense of zen was her family life with baby Alexis and husband Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit whom she wed in November.
“It’s probably been the most fun of my life,” she said.
And though she insists she has nothing left to prove, one professional goal eludes her – Margaret Court’s all-time record for Slam singles titles of 24.
“It goes unsaid 25 is obviously something that I would love, but I’d hate to limit myself,” she joked.
Zverev produced some superb tennis to down Kyrgios 6-2, 7-6 (3), 6-2 in one hour, 48 minutes and put Germany into a quarter-final against either Spain or Great Britain.
“(To win) against a very strong Australian team makes us very confident for the next round, for the upcoming years,” German captain Michael Kohlmann said.
“We showed we have a lot of good players, a lot of strong players.
“We showed that we are able to go further than this.”
Zverev served beautifully throughout, only facing two break points in the match, both at the end of the second set and both of which he saved.
He also returned well, getting many of Kyrgios’s thunderbolts back in play and then winning the battle from the back of the court.
“It’s awesome, it’s an amazing feeling and without my teammates it wouldn’t have been possible,” Zverev said.
“Obviously we’re happy but hopefully this is just the beginning for us.”
Kyrgios went into the match full of expectation after an impressive win over Jan-Lennard Struff in Friday’s opening singles.
Zverev, on the other hand, had looked out of touch on Friday and was pushed for almost four hours before seeing off 18-year-old Alex de Minaur in five sets.
But following the Germans’ win in the doubles on Saturday to give them a 2-1 lead, all the pressure was on Kyrgios, who had to win to keep the tie alive.
The mercurial Australian opened brilliantly, holding his serve to love much to the delight of the boisterous home crowd.
But that was almost as good as it got for the Australian team, as Kyrgios lost two of his next three service games to surrender the opening set in just 23 minutes.
Kyrgios appeared troubled by an elbow problem in the first set and it became more noticeable in the second, the Australian often shaking his right arm between points.
He served better in the second set, firing down eight aces, but at 4-3 he had a medical timeout for treatment on his arm.
The Australian continued to serve well and had two set points on Zverev’s serve at 6-5, but the German saved both then played a superb tiebreak to take a stranglehold on the rubber.
Once Zverev broke to go ahead 3-1 the result was never really in doubt and at 2-5, Kyrgios was broken again to give Germany the tie.
Kyrgios said he felt a problem with his elbow after Friday’s match.
“It obviously affected me a lot,” a downcast Kyrgios said.
“My serve is my biggest strength — I mean I thought he played great today — but my serve was not really there and that affects the rest of my game.
“It’s tough to go out there and not be able to put in your best performance.”