At some point on Saturday afternoon, as the clouds hovered and skies darkened over the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, Serena Williams went from happy to be here to get out of my way, as imperceptible as a subtle first-set grimace but unmistakable for anyone who has paid any attention to her career.
And when that happened, even before her 7-6(5), 7-5 second-round victory over No. 29 seeded Kiki Bertens, a 29th meeting between the Williams sisters was a given.
An added bonus to Serena’s return to the tour after a 14-month absence, she will meet older sister Venus — a 6-3, 6-4 winner over Sorana Cirstea — in a third-round match at the BNP Paribas Open on Monday. It’s the earliest meeting of the sisters since their very first match in the series, a straight-set victory by Venus in the second round of the 1998 Australia Open.
“Obviously, I wish it was anybody else in the draw, literally anybody, but that’s OK,” Serena said. “[I] just have to go out there and see how I am and do my best.”
Serena leads the series 17-11, with their last three matches in Grand Slams including the most recent, the 2017 Australian Open final, won by Serena, 6-4, 6-4. Only a select few of those in her closest circle – Venus included – knew she was six weeks pregnant at the time of the match.
It was the last tour event Serena would play until coming to Indian Wells, six months after the birth of her daughter and the complications that left her bedridden for six weeks. And the 23-time Grand Slam champion said her expectations were modest going into her first match, a 7-5, 6-3 first-round victory over Zarina Diyas.
“She looked like she never lost a step, really, and was controlling the match,” Venus said of that first-round performance. “Her opponent played really, really, really well, to be honest. Probably produced maybe the best tennis of her career. For Serena to win against someone that inspired and free [was] a great, great way to come back.”
After Saturday, those expectations should rise with her serve more efficient and fewer mistakes, but Serena playfully chided reporters for being “crazy” when it was suggested she was back to “business as usual.”
“Oh, my gosh…No. I’m getting there. I have a long way to go. I have such a long way to go,” she said. “It definitely felt better than the first round, but, I mean, I’m still a little rusty. I’m still making errors that I don’t normally make.
“But I call this a trial run, you know. Even with the baby, like, a trial run of traveling with the baby and all of this is just so new to me. Yeah, I’m getting there.”
Still, she admitted that coming from behind in the first set and taking the tiebreaker was a good sign.
“That was also really good, because being able to come back and feel that rush of, ‘OK, I’m down, I’m down, but I’m still fighting,’ to be able to come back I think was also really important,” she said.
Preceding her sister on Stadium Court 1, Venus was sharp as well in her second-round match, her first since playing Fed Cup in early February. The 37-year-old No. 8 seed finished 2017 as the runner-up at the WTA Finals, reached the final of Wimbledon and the Australian Open, and returned to the Top 10. In her only tour events of 2018, she opened the season with losses in back-to-back first-round matches.
“I think she’s playing great compared to when she was younger,” Serena said. “I think she played great when she was younger, but I think she’s playing great now.”