For once, Serena Williams didn't have to play like the Serena Williams who's a 23-time Grand Slam singles champion, the one who sets high standards for herself each time she stepped onto the tennis court.
On Thursday, playing her first competitive match in 14 months, she could be a new mom who got teary-eyed at being separated from her child for even a few hours, and an athlete beginning a long journey toward regaining the timing and touch and power that allowed her to dominate the sport. She was far from perfect, but she considered her 7-5, 6-3 victory over Zarina Diyas in the first round at the BNP Paribas Open to be a satisfactory start to a comeback that is different from any she has made before.
"I surprised myself with some of the errors," she said of her performance Thursday. "But I'm not putting too much 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. I feel like this is one of the few times I've been able to do that."
Williams, 36, said her stamina was good thanks to the long hours of training she had put in. Her timing wasn't quite as strong, though she shook off her initial rust and became more precise with her shots as the match went along.
"Definitely just match play and making those key shots that I make nine out of 10 times, and missing some of those a lot," she said of what was most difficult for her. "But it's totally expected. I kind of went in there knowing that I'm not going to be where I want to be in the first few matches. It takes time to get back."
Her husband, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, sat courtside for the match with other family members but daughter Alexis Jr. wasn't with them. "I almost cried before the match," she said. "I texted Alexis like, 'Is it normal that I want to cry?' Because I really missed her. But playing at night really helped. Because I know she goes to bed and she goes to sleep and if she's asleep I can't play with her right now."
Alexis Jr. was born Sept. 1 after a difficult delivery. Williams developed complications after she underwent a caesarean section, and also endured blood clots in her lungs. Those problems delayed her return, though she said she never doubted she'd resume her career. This return, though, is markedly different from the times when injuries prevented her from competing.
"I'm playing with nothing to lose. I only can gain," she said. "I really had just nothing to lose right now. For me it's a real joy to be out here. Sometimes I think about those moments I was in the hospital and just not even realizing how serious it was until later. And just being able to come through that just makes me feel like no matter what happens, I know that I'm capable of being strong. Whether I win or lose, that there's so much more to my life."
Patience has become a key resource for her and will continue to be important as she faces better players here and in subsequent tournaments. "I'm not where I want to be. But I'm getting there," she said. "And that's one thing I realized: I'm not going to be there today or next week or tomorrow but I will eventually get there and I do have my goals on when I want to be peaked. At some point I need to start and jump and fly. I can do it. Every day is going to be a challenge for me but I know I'll overcome it and I'm ready to overcome it."
More happy returns
Victoria Azarenka also made a return to tennis after a long absence, and her first match also ended successfully. Azarenka, who gave birth to a son nearly 15 months ago but became involved in a custody dispute with the baby's father and was prohibited from taking the boy out of California, defeated Heather Watson of Britain, 6-4, 6-2, in a first-round match that ended at 11:45 p.m. PST. Azarenka, a former world No. 1, was given a wild-card entry here. She won the title here in 2012 and again in 2016.