The muscle memory kicked in. The service, while not in the 120s, was there, too. And, yes, the trademark shrieks of disgust and roars of approval.
If you didn’t know that this was Serena Williams’ first competitive singles match in 14 months, there were few telltale signs.
If you were unaware that she gave birth seven months ago, that life-threatening blood clots in her lungs caused such violent coughing that her C-section incision ruptured and required more surgery, that she was bedridden for six weeks and didn’t pick up a racquet until December, you might mistake Williams’ 7-5, 6-3 first-round victory over Zarina Diyas as just another notch in a career where first rounds are barely acknowledged.
And that, of course, is what made Thursday night at the BNP Parabas Open so remarkable.
If you didn’t know, you might not know.
Dressed in her comeback outfit of black leggings under a black dress and looking more fit than she probably had any right to be, Williams was obviously not in the peak form that produced more Grand Slam titles (23) than any man or woman in the Open Era.
There were bouts of sloppiness, like when she lost seven points in a row early in the second set. But then, as she’s so often done throughout her career, Serena fought back with four straight points of her own, breaking back to take a 3-2 lead.
“I was thinking from zero to Serena, I’m probably just to the ‘S,’” Williams said. “I have a little ways to go but I’ll get there. I’m just going to go for it.”
A seven-minute sixth game gave Diyas her second break of the second set at 3-3 and Williams looked labored. But yelling “COME ON!” in a voice that carried to the upper reaches of Stadium 1, she broke Dyas’ serve again at 4-3, then ripped off her fourth ace to go up 5-3.
This was not the night she would lose to the 53rd-ranked player in the world. And with a smile as wide as any Grand Slam grin, Williams moves on to play 29th-ranked Kiki Bertens in the second round with her sister Venus awaiting a possible meeting in the third.
“Should any of us be surprised?” said Tennis Channel’s Mary Carillo as the new mom to Alexis Olympia closed out the first set. And the same could be said when Diyas sprayed a forehand wide on match point to end this first stop on Williams’ journey after one hour, 32 minutes.
“I surprised myself with some of the errors but 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,” Williams said. “I feel like it’s one of the few times I’ve been able to do that.”
And the first time she can leave a match and go home to her daughter.
“My favorite thing is her toothless smile, it’s absolutely my favorite thing. Just holding her and the way my heart skips a beat. I never thought about that. I’ve always thought it would never be like that.”