A warm night in the desert saw Serena Williams’ long awaited return to competitive singles action after more than a year out of the game. An expectant Thursday night crowd in Indian Wells had been kept waiting for nearly an hour by an over-running men’s singles match, but when Serena followed Kazakhstan’s Zarina Diyas onto court there was an enthusiastic welcome for the returning twice former champion.
Serena, who was unseeded for the tournament despite her protected WTA Tour ranking of 22, faced an opponent ranked 31 places below her, and when the match got under way shortly after 8pm it was clear that the far from capacity crowd were on her side. Diyas had looked decidedly nervous during the warm-up, but, buoyed by holding her first two service games, gradually worked her way into the match.
Diyas recovered from 0-40 to hold in the fifth game, and at 4-3 ahead called her coach onto court. Play proceeded on serve until 5-5, when Serena broke through, adding patience to power to force her opponent into error. As the night air began to cool, Serena served out the set without difficulty, and this seemed to dispel any nervousness she may have been feeling after such a long absence from the match court. She broke serve for 2-1 second set lead, but good play by the Kazakh restored parity at 2-2.
Play now entered a disjointed phase, with both players serving up a mixture of sublime winners and clumsy mistakes. Serena broke again to lead 3-2, and it was clear that in Diyas she was facing exactly the right type of opponent in her comeback match; good enough to test her but seemingly without the weapons to cause an upset. Still it was hard work, though, and on her fourth break point Diyas levelled again at three-all. The player from Kazakhstan was now playing her best tennis of the match, but only succeeded in bringing the best out of Serena who promptly broke yet again to lead 4-3 and this time held to love to move within a game of victory.
The match was secured with another break in the next game 7-5 6-3, and Serena was back. She had shown glimpses of her best form, with one or two rapier-like forehands drawing gasps from the crowd, but sterner tests will surely lie ahead.