Despite long absence, Serena Williams never lost competitive spirit

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Thursday was International Women's Day, but the spotlight at the BNP Paribas Open belonged to one woman. After more than a year away from competitive tennis, Serena Williams made her much-anticipated return to the WTA with a 7-5, 6-3 win against 53rd-ranked Zarina Diyas. It was Williams' first match since capturing her 23rd Grand Slam title at the 2017 Australian Open while six weeks pregnant with daughter Alexis Olympia.

On any other night, a first-round match at a non-major between the greatest player in Grand Slam history and a 24-year-old with one singles title to her name wouldn't be much of a draw. But tennis fans had waited 404 days to watch Williams return to the sport, and when she took her first steps onto the court, the near-capacity crowd stood and cheered her homecoming.

"Welcome home, Serena!" a few fans yelled from the upper deck.

"It was really special," Williams said after the match. "I usually don't crack a smile when I walk out. I try to look down and stay focused. But I couldn't help but smile. I felt like when you're young and first come on tour and you're excited to play the top players to see where your game is at. That's how I felt. I'm excited to be here and be on the grounds of a tournament and to be playing."

Williams knew that no matter when or where she made her return, there would be no opportunity for her to do so quietly. She initially announced her comeback for the Australian Open in mid-January, but 10 days before the tournament and only four months after giving birth to her daughter, she withdrew, saying in a statement that, "Although I am super close, I'm not where I personally want to be." So she continued to train until she was closer to her goal.

In February, Williams played a Fed Cup doubles match with her sister Venus, and Monday she played in an exhibition at Madison Square Garden. After each performance, reviews of her game underscored how far she was from being in peak Serena shape. She entered Thursday night's match unseeded for the first time since 2011 and with a protected ranking of 22nd. Before the match, her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said Williams' return from maternity leave would be the toughest challenge of her career.

"She didn't compete for more than a year," Mouratoglou said. "She had a baby, a C-section, a blood clot, and she had to recover from all of that and come back fit enough to compete with the best in the world and with the mindset, as a new mother, that is as competitive as she was before. That is a huge challenge, especially at 36."

After the win, both Williams and Mouratoglou were heartened by her performance.

"I think my stamina was really good," said Williams, who needed 1 hour and 32 minutes to dispatch Diyas. "I surprised myself with some of the errors, but for this tournament, I'm not putting too much pressure or expectation on myself. I feel like it's one of the few times I've been able to do that."

Although she served four aces, three of which came in the first set, and hit 34 winners, Williams committed 27 unforced errors, served four double faults and failed to convert on six of 11 break points. Her win did not come easily, which was perhaps the most telling part about it. When Williams was down, she found her fight. The moment she stepped foot on center court, Serena the Competitor showed up to play.

"What she showed tonight was encouraging," Mouratoglou said. "Put her on a tennis court, and she is a different person. There is Serena in her normal life, Serena when she steps on a tennis court and Serena when she steps on a tennis court in a competition. They are three different people. The quality of her practice has been good. But the quality of tennis she played tonight is better than anything I've seen from her in the past few months.

"She was aggressive, and I was impressed with the quality of her focus. She returned very well and had many occasions for break points because of the speed and accuracy of her returns. It was very satisfying to see her play like that. I was watching the match and thinking, 'She is showing that she came back to win Grand Slams.' With that performance, she sent a message to everyone. After that match, she's back."

Williams next plays 29th-ranked Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands in the second round Saturday and faces a possible third-round meeting with big sister Venus on Monday. For the first time in her career, Williams said she is truly taking her return one day at a time.

"I'm not where I want to be, but I'm getting there," Williams said. "And that's one thing I realize. I'm not going to be there today or next week or tomorrow, but I will eventually get there. Every day is going to be a challenge for me, but I know I'll overcome it, and I'm ready to overcome it. I'm playing with nothing to lose. I could have been playing like that for years, but I really have nothing to lose right now, and for me, it's a real joy to be out here."

As Williams exited the court after the match had ended, Tina Turner's voice filled the arena, and the crowd began clapping and singing along to her 1989 hit.

"Simply the best ... better than all the rest ... better than anyone ..."

Serena waved one final time to the crowd and then disappeared into the tunnel to take the first steps toward Day 2 of her return.