(Reuters) – Serena Williams conceded she had been rusty on her return to professional tennis after more than a year away from the game but still did enough to secure a 7-5 6-3 win over Zarina Diyas in the first round of the BNP Paribas Open on Thursday.
Williams, who had not played a singles match since winning the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant, chalked up 27 unforced errors with 34 winners to defeat her 53rd-ranked opponent in front of a large and enthusiastic crowd in California.
“It was incredible. It’s been over a year and a kid later. I get to go home to her now and I’m excited about that,” Williams said.
“It definitely wasn’t easy but it was good. I’m a little rusty but it doesn’t matter. I’m just out here on this journey doing the best I can.”
Williams was only two points from dropping the opening set but showed the sort of poise that has earned her 23 grand slam singles titles.
After taking a deep breath, she unleashed a second serve that kicked up viciously, forcing Kazakh Diyas to reach high for her return, unable to get it back into play.
Holding serve to level at 5-5, Williams broke in the next game, letting out a scream and clenching her left fist as Diyas netted.
The second set was a fairly even contest, with Williams again coming through on most of the big points.
The 36-year-old gave birth to daughter Alexis Olympia on Sept. 1, but says post-childbirth health complications that included blood clots in her lungs were almost fatal.
She is now healthy again, but skipped this year’s Australian Open because she did not consider herself tournament ready.
Williams is unseeded at Indian Wells, which is why she had to play the first round while the seeds, including sister Venus, enjoyed a bye. The Williams sisters could meet in the third round.
Serena plays Dutch 29th seed Kiki Bertens in the second round, while Venus takes on Romanian Sorana Cirstea.
Former world number one Victoria Azarenka also made a winning comeback after eight months out of action, beating Britain’s Heather Watson 6-4 6-2.
The two-time grand slam winner last played at Wimbledon in July before the legal battle over the custody of her son kept Azarenka off the court for the rest of the season. She also withdrew from the Australian Open in January.
A commanding display in the first set saw Azarenka race to a 5-1 lead but Watson fought back to make it 5-4 before the Belarusian regained control to clinch the set.
The second set was more competitive with Azarenka taking a 4-2 lead before being pushed in a 12-deuce game between the duo but the 28-year-old held on to make it 5-2 and charge to victory.
“It was tough, especially in moments that I have been out of the game…,” the two-time champion said after the match. “It’s a pretty good start. I had my heart out playing here and that’s the most important.”
Azarenka has now won all six of her matches against Watson and will play U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens in the next round.
Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina, Aditi Prakash in Bengaluru; editing by Amlan Chakraborty/Peter Rutherford