TENNIS

Serena Williams wins first match on return to WTA Tour after 15-month maternity break

The former world No 1 beat Zarina Diyas 7-5, 6-3 in the opening match at Indian Wells.

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.

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.

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 against a tough opponent who claimed her first WTA title last year in Tokyo.

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.

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.

After a couple of exhibitions and a Davis Cup doubles match, Williams was eager to hit with the big guns on the WTA Tour again.

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.

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 Simona Halep.

Like Williams, Azarenka ended a long layoff from a pregnancy by competing in the final match of the Indian Wells night session Thursday.

Azarenka, who needed a wild card to get into the draw, cruised past Britain’s Heather Watson 6-4, 6-2.

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