SERENA Williams was a mess playing her first match at Indian Wells in 14 years. Her game was erratic and her emotions were off the charts in response to a warm welcome from the fans, a sharp contrast to the booing that drove her away as a teenager.
Williams defeated Monica Niculescu 7-5, 7-5 in a wildly inconsistent performance that included 48 unforced errors and 12 aces.
Williams rallied from a 5-3 deficit in the first set and recovered after blowing three leads in the second set, finally winning on her fourth match point in her first tournament since earning her 19th Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in January.
“I feel like the nerves have kind of gone away,” she said. “I’m glad I was able to do this. It definitely feels like one of the biggest and one of the proudest moments of my career.”
A serious-looking Williams walked on to the court wearing headphones, then slipped them off and raised her right arm to acknowledge the sustained applause as she was introduced.
“But up until that moment I didn’t really know if it was the right thing for me to do. I feel like that’s when I felt it was the right thing,” she said. “And receiving the love from the crowd here, it really meant a lot to me.”
The world’s top-ranked women’s player had stayed away from the BNP Paribas Open since winning the 2001 title as a 19-year-old, getting booed by the fans in the Californian desert town for what happened a day earlier, when she was to play older sister Venus in a semi-final and Venus withdrew because of injury 20 minutes before the start.
A young black girl waved a sign reading “Straight Outta Compton”, the Los Angeles suburb where the Williams sisters first learned tennis.
“I feel like I’ve already won this tournament. I don’t feel like I have to actually hold the trophy at the end of this,” Williams said. “I feel like I’m already holding up a trophy. I have never felt that way before. Just being here is a huge win. Not only for me, but for so many people. It’s a wonderful feeling.”
Williams closed out the two-hour match when Niculescu netted a backhand volley. After a quick handshake, Williams waved to the crowd, but there was none of the jumping and pirouetting that often marks her victories.
“We love you, Serena!” a male fan bellowed during the coin toss at the net. Billionaire Larry Ellison, who owns the tournament, was on his feet applauding Williams as she jogged to the baseline near his seat for the warm-up. He was later joined by John McEnroe and billionaire Bill Gates.
Niculescu, ranked 68th in the world, was affected by the reception, too. “I’m happy the crowd was really nice,” she said.
Williams had played just one Fed Cup match since winning in Australia and her rustiness showed. On her third match point, she netted a backhand return of Niculescu’s 79mph serve.
She had two match points on Niculescu’s serve in the tenth game, committing unforced errors both times, including a backhand she had plenty of time to make.
Williams’ mother Oracene, sister Isha, her coach and agent watched as Williams fell behind 2-0 in the opening set of the second-round match.
Niculescu used her wicked topspin to blunt Williams’ power game, taking a 5-3 lead. Williams held at love before winning the last two games to take the first set, in which there were five service breaks.
Williams double-faulted away one game before serving out another at love.
“I’ve never played anyone like her before. She’s obviously an unbelievable fighter,” Williams said. “She really made me work really hard. It was good to have a really, really tough match.”
Williams’ match was one of 11 involving Americans, with six advancing and five losing.
Sloane Stephens upset 13th-seeded Angelique Kerber 7-6 (6), 6-2 in second-round play and Varvara Lepchenko defeated fellow American Sachia Vickery, 6-4, 6-1.
On the men’s side, Donald Young, Steve Johnson and Jack Sock advanced to the second round.