INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Walking on court for the first match of her latest comeback, Serena Williams allowed herself a rare smile. This time, tennis is different for the 23-time major winner.
What didn’t change is Williams winning.
She beat Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan 7-5, 6-3 in the first round of the BNP Paribas Open on Thursday night after a 14-month layoff for the birth of her first daughter.
“I almost cried before the match,” Williams said. “I texted Alexis, I was like, is it normal that I want to cry? I really missed her, but playing at night really helped because I know she goes to bed and she goes to sleep. I can’t like play with her right now.”
With new husband and Reddit co-found Alexis Ohanian looking on, Williams played from behind until breaking Diyas in the 11th game of the first set. Diyas netted a forehand and Williams yelled, “Come on!” as the crowd cheered.
“Right now, for this particular tournament, I’m really just trying to take it easy and not put so much pressure or stress or expectation on myself,” she said. “I feel like it’s one of the few times I’ve been able to do that.”
Williams has been away since winning the 2017 Australian Open early in her pregnancy. She gave birth to Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. six months ago.
Williams is playing at Indian Wells under a protected ranking of 22nd. She hasn’t been unseeded at a tournament since 2011 in Cincinnati.
“I’m playing with nothing to lose, I only can gain,” she said. “For me, it’s a real joy to be out here.”
The half-full stadium warmly greeted Williams, with many fans giving her a standing ovation as she entered.
Williams served a love game capped by a 100-mph ace in her first service game. She had break points in the first and fifth games but couldn’t convert. She started hitting harder and her familiar grunting returned when she tied the set 5-all.
Diyas and Williams traded service breaks early in the second set. Williams then broke her opponent again en route to winning the final five games in front of the half-full stadium. She smiled as she walked to the net, and her family gave her a standing ovation.
“It definitely wasn’t easy,” Williams said on court. “We always have a couple tight sets. It was good. I’m a little rusty, but it doesn’t matter. I’m just out here on this journey and doing the best I can.”
Also in Williams’ box were her mother Oracene, sisters Lyndrea and Isha, her agent, and her coach Patrick Mouratoglou. Older sister Venus watched from a balcony seat in an upper-level box on a 68-degree night in the Southern California desert.
Ohanian bought four billboards along Interstate 10 outside Palm Springs in tribute to his wife. The fourth billboard shows a photo of Williams and their daughter with the phrase “G.M.O.A.T” — greatest mother of all time — and is signed by Alexis Sr. and Jr.
Now she’s travelling the tour with her baby and sometimes her husband, when he isn’t off working.
“I’ve never done this before,” she said. “I know I’ll make mistakes and I’m OK with that.”
Williams’ only competitive appearances since the birth came in December at an exhibition in Abu Dhabi, a Fed Cup doubles match with sister Venus last month and an exhibition in New York on Monday.
Another new mother, Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, won her first-round match over Heather Watson 6-4, 6-2.
The two-time winner of the desert tournament needed a wild card to get in because she has been off the tour since Wimbledon. Azarenka, who gave birth to son Leo in December 2016, has been in a custody fight that limited her travel.
In other first-round matches, CiCi Bellis overpowered qualifier Sara Sorribes Tormo 6-0, 6-3.
The 18-year-old American, who spurned a full scholarship from Stanford to turn pro last August, had her serve broken just once by the Spaniard in the 65-minute match. Bellis earned a second-round matchup with defending champion Elena Vesnina of Russia.
Bellis led five Americans into the second round. She was joined by wild card Danielle Collins and Jennifer Brady, who both got stretched to three sets. Taylor Fritz needed three sets to advance in the men’s draw as did Mitchell Krueger and Jared Donaldson.