ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- The first step in Serena Williams' comeback underscored how far she has to go after spending more than a year away from the game.
"I honestly feel better than I thought I was going to feel," Williams said.
The U.S. had already clinched a victory in the best-of-five event, thanks to a pair of singles victories by Venus Williams, so the doubles loss merely narrowed the final score to 3-1. The U.S. advanced to a World Group semifinal April 21-22 at France, which defeated Belgium 3-2 this weekend.
The clincher came Sunday, when Venus Williams won the final five games in a 7-5, 6-1 victory over Richel Hogenkamp. The U.S. had taken a 2-0 lead Saturday, when Venus Williams beat Arantxa Rus 6-1, 6-4 and CoCo Vandeweghe rallied from a set and a break down to defeat Hogenkamp 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-3.
"Obviously, this is an important moment, when you're playing not just for yourself but your other team members and your captain and your country," Venus Williams said. "It's definitely a different kind of pressure."
But this event was most notable for the return of Serena Williams, who hadn't played competitive tennis since she won the 2017 Australian Open (while pregnant) for her 23rd career Grand Slam singles title, one off Margaret Court's record. Her only match since was in a Dec. 30 exhibition.
Serena Williams' daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., was wearing a headband with red and white stripes and a blue coat Sunday as her father, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, held her just behind the players' bench.
"I didn't manage my time well, but I was thinking about it in the future how to manage it better," Serena Williams said. "This is literally my first time traveling with the baby and everything. I'm going to try to do better. It was hard. It was the first time for me."
Williams said Friday that this weekend would represent "the start of a long process" as she tries to work her way back. Her pregnancy had complications that made this comeback particularly challenging.
Williams told Vogue magazine that she developed several small blood clots in her lungs after her daughter was born Sept. 1. The article said that she was unable to get out of bed for the first six weeks after giving birth.
Her doubles match revealed the effects of her long time away from the game. Williams said she hadn't known what to expect Sunday and acknowledged that she needs to improve in all aspects, but she added that "I feel like I'm on the right track."
"I didn't expect to have that much power on my serves, even though they didn't go in," she said. "It's just a start. I feel like that's a very good step in the right direction."
Netherlands captain Paul Haarhuis said a few more matches should help Williams correct the mistakes she made Sunday.
"I think she's going to be fine," Haarhuis said. "She's got the game, you know."
Williams' biggest challenge might be managing expectations as she attempts to work her way back into peak form while balancing tennis and motherhood. Her goals remain as high as ever.
"I think if I walk out there with low expectations, then I need to stop doing what I do," she said. "So that's never going to happen for me. I'm always going to have the best and highest expectations for myself. I'm OK with that because that's just who I am."
Sunday's scheduled singles match between Vandeweghe and Rus was scrapped because the outcome of this event has been decided.
After Venus Williams' singles victory Sunday, U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi said the Williams sisters would be playing doubles together. The schedule originally called for Serena Williams to play alongside Lauren Davis.
In other Fed Cup action this weekend, the Czech Republic beat Switzerland 3-1 and Germany beat Belarus 3-2. Germany will host the Czech Republic in the other semifinal.