Unseeded Williams off to winning start in WTA return

Greg Heakes
Serena Williams won her opening match at the WTA Indian Wells event with a 7-5, 6-3 victory over Zarina Diyas

Serena Williams shook off the rust from a 15-month layoff due to pregnancy to win her opening match at the WTA Indian Wells event with a 7-5, 6-3 victory over Zarina Diyas.

The unseeded Williams was the top-ranked player in the world when she began her long layoff following her victory at the 2017 Australian Open, where she was already expecting daughter Alexis Olympia who was born in September.

After a couple of exhibitions and a Davis Cup doubles match, Williams feels she is ready to hit with the big guns on the WTA Tour again.

"I am not going to be there today or next week but I will get there and I do have my goals," Williams said.

"At some point I need to jump and fly. Every day is going to be a challenge. I know I will overcome it. It takes time to get back."

Williams entered the court Thursday night to a loud ovation, with many in the half full stadium standing and applauding as she came out of the tunnel for just her third appearance in Indian Wells in the last 17 years.

After that it was a matter of gradually asserting herself by taking control of the rallies, and she got the first break of serve in the 11th game of the first set and secured the set in the next game on her third set point.

Her daughter was born on September 1 but Williams says throughout the pre and postnatal period she tried to maintain a certain level of fitness.

The 36-year-old American is the star attraction in Indian Wells, but behind her popularity this year was the mystery surrounding her match fitness and ball-striking ability.

The 23-time Grand Slam winner answered some of those questions Thursday by blasting four aces and winning 63 percent of her first-serve points.

"From zero to Serena I am with the S," she said. "I have got a ways to go.

"It is a journey for me and I am just going to go for it.

"I wanted to stay fit just be ready. I wasn't ready to retire yet even though it would have been a great way to retire."

Williams also won an whopping 64 percent of her second serves and broke Diyas, ranked 53rd in the world, five times in the 92 minute match.

- Venus clash ahead? -

She had four double faults, but her impressive second serve win ratio was evidence of a game plan that included being aggressive and not sitting back and allowing Kazakhstan's Diyas to dictate the pace of play.

Williams set up a second round match with 29th seeded Kiki Bertens. A win over Bertens could see her face older sister Venus in the third round.

Venus, who is seeded eighth, enjoyed a first round bye and will play Romania's Sorana Cirstea in her opening match.

The birth of Williams's daughter was followed by life-threatening complications that scuppered her plans to defend her title in Melbourne.

Williams says she now lives in fear of blood clots, a condition that surfaced during a harrowing postnatal ordeal in September. In an op-ed piece she wrote for CNN last month, the tennis legend lifted the lid on her near-death experience while giving birth after getting blood clots in her lungs.

"I am playing with nothing to lose," she said. "For me it is a real joy to be out here.

"I think about the moment in the hospital and not even realizing how serious it was until later to be able to come through that. Going through that I know I am able to be strong win or lose."

Earlier this week she played in a Tie Break Tens exhibition in New York. In February she played a doubles rubber for the US Fed Cup team, after taking part in an exhibition in Abu Dhabi in Late December.

Serena boycotted Indian Wells, with her sister Venus, for 14 years after she was booed in the 2001 final. She returned in 2015 but had to pull out before her semi-final against Simona Halep with a knee problem.

In 2016, she lost in the final to Victoria Azarenka, 6-4, 6-4.

Indian Wells features a star-studded women's field in a tournament that looks wide open for the taking by any of the top 10 seeds, led by world number one Halep.