Serena Williams had said her return to tennis this weekend at the Fed Cup would represent the "start of a long process." Her first match in over a year showed how far she has to go.
In Williams' first competition since giving birth five months ago, she and her sister Venus lost 6-2, 6-3 to Lesley Kerkhove and Demi Schuurs of the Netherlands in a Fed Cup doubles match Sunday.
The U.S. already had clinched a victory in the best-of-five event thanks to a pair of singles victories by Venus Williams, so this doubles loss merely narrowed the final score to 3-1. The U.S. advanced to a World Cup semifinal April 21-22 at France, which defeated Belgium 3-2 this weekend.
But this event was most notable for the return of Serena Williams, five months after giving birth. She hadn't played competitive tennis since winning the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant for her 23rd career Grand Slam singles title, one off Margaret Court's record.
"Honestly, I feel like we were all a team out here, us playing and everyone in the stands," Williams said in her postmatch interview in front of the sellout crowd of over 5,000 at U.S. Cellular Center. "It was all of us together, and it felt awesome."
Serena Williams' daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., was wearing a headband with an American flag design while sitting with her father, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, just behind the players' bench.
Williams had told Vogue magazine that she developed several small blood clots in her lungs after her daughter was born. 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.
Earlier Sunday, Venus Williams defeated Richel Hogenkamp 7-5, 6-1 to give the U.S. a decisive 3-0 lead in its best-of-five matchup.
Sunday's scheduled singles match between CoCo Vandeweghe and Arantxa Rus was scrapped because the outcome of this event already 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.
Before the doubles match started, the U.S. team celebrated its triumph over the Netherlands. Davis carried an American flag while joining the Williams sisters and Vandeweghe on a victory lap around the court.
The U.S. had taken a 2-0 lead Saturday when Venus Williams defeated Rus 6-4, 6-1 and Vandeweghe rallied from a set and a break down to beat Hogenkamp 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-3.
"Honestly, I'd like to think CoCo wore her out some," Venus Williams said after her own victory over Hogenkamp.
Venus Williams' victory over Hogenkamp improved her Fed Cup singles record to 21-2 with 11 straight victories. Her only Fed Cup singles losses came in 1999 to Russia's Elena Dementieva and in 2005 to Russia's Anastasia Myskina.
Hogenkamp had a break-point opportunity that would have put her ahead 6-5 in the first set before Williams won the final seven points of the set. Williams took the last five games of the match to wrap up the victory.
"You're under pressure a lot," Hogenkamp said. "Every time you hit a second serve, you see someone at the other side standing one or two meters inside the baseline. She's giving a lot of pressure to me when I'm serving, overall putting pressure on you. I think that's one of her strengths. For me it's tough, when I'm not feeling the match really well, to handle that."
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.