NEW YORK -- Serena Williams continued her return to competitive tennis Monday night at Madison Square Garden during a one-night Tie Break Tens event. Featuring eight players, including Venus Williams and CoCo Vandeweghe, and playing in a tiebreak-style elimination format with the first to 10 points winning and advancing, Serena Williams ultimately lost to world No. 33 Shuai Zhang, 13-11, in the semifinals, but showed moments of her signature brilliance (and serve) throughout the competition.
But for most fans in attendance, it didn't seem to matter how she fared on the court. It was simply incredible to watch her return just six months after the birth of her daughter. Many seemed to relish any opportunity to see the 23-time Grand Slam champion play -- as evidenced by the constant, "We love you, Serena!" cheers throughout the night -- much to the chagrin of the chair umpire -- even when she wasn't on the court.
Eileen Carlin of New York had never been to a tennis match, but wanted to see Serena play in person. Even after her brother bailed on her at the last minute, she was determined to attend.
"Serena is such a phenomenal player, I couldn't pass up the chance to see her and Venus play live," Carlin said. "Her being here just shows such tenacity and a never-give-up attitude. It's inspiring to see."
Even the players on the U.S. women's hockey team, who were honored during a break in the action for their gold-medal victory in the Pyeongchang Olympics, couldn't stop snapping pictures of Williams and were loudly cheering for her and standing in support from their courtside seats.
And Serena didn't disappoint. She won her first match against Marion Bartoli, herself making a return after a 4 1/2-year absence from the sport, in convincing fashion, 10-5, and the moderate-sized crowd was deafening during the final moments and after Williams clinched the win. When she fell in the semifinals to world No. 33 Zhang, Williams received a warm reception, and more than a few people headed for the exits shortly after.
While she didn't speak to the media after being eliminated, Serena seemed relaxed, happy to be back on the court, and loving the energy of the crowd. She playfully made faces and seemed to enjoy being around her peers. She admitted to host Hannah Storm after the match that she sets high expectations for herself and doesn't like to lose, but was optimistic for the future. "You should always believe in yourself even if no one else does," she said in an on-court interview. Williams is currently scheduled to make her return to the WTA at this week's BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California.
It seemed like the players were happy to see Williams back as well. Event winner Elina Svitolina (who defeated Zhang in the final) called it "special" to be a part of Serena's return during her winner's speech and Bartoli echoed that sentiment. Speaking before play got under way, Bartoli, the 2013 Wimbledon champion, knew it was going to be a tough matchup but still appreciated the moment.
"She's a great friend and we were texting as soon as we learned we would be playing each other," Bartoli said. "It's so good to see her back, and I just hope I don't lose, 10-0."
The two shared a warm embrace after their match, and then appeared to look at pictures on each other's phones.
For many in the crowd, it was a family affair. Ella Crocco, 11, started playing tennis four years ago with her grandmother Claudia and they've watched and played the sport together. When they discovered Monday's event fell right around Claudia's 74th birthday, the Long Island residents knew watching one of the best to ever play was the perfect way to celebrate.
"My grandmother is the one that got me into tennis," Ella said. "She still plays twice a week and can definitely beat me. But it's so cool to be here with her watching Serena, and have her be here with her sister [Venus]. It's really fun."
And for some other young, aspiring tennis players in the audience, it was inspiring and a lesson in hard work and long-term dedication.
"Serena is my favorite," said 7-year-old Ava Brewer of Harlem, who was attending with her father, Ty. "I like her because she's a good tennis player. I've been playing since I was 2. I'm pretty good, but Serena has been playing for 30 years so I'm not as good as her yet."