For all that has changed in the 16 months since Serena Williams last played in a Grand Slam tournament – she is now married and a mother – so much was familiar about her at the French Open yesterday.
The fashion statement, this time in the form of a black bodysuit with a red waistband. The cries of “Come on!” The big serves that provided 13 aces. The return game that produced three consecutive breaks of serve.
And, yes, the victory. Competing as a mum for the first time at a major, and only about nine months since giving birth to her daughter, Williams beat 70th-ranked Kristyna Pliskova of the Czech Republic 7-6 (7/4), 6-4 at Roland Garros.
“I’m just happy to win a match here,” Williams told the crowd on Court Philippe Chatrier. “I’m just happy to take it a day at a time.”
The 36-year-old American had not played in one of tennis’s biggest tournaments since the Australian Open in January 2017, when she won her 23rd Grand Slam title. That broke a tie with Steffi Graf for the most in the Open era. The only player with more major singles championships was Margaret Court, with 24, but those were split between the amateur and professional eras.
Only later did Williams reveal that she was pregnant at the time. Her baby was born on 1 September, and Williams married Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian in November.
The first glimpse of Williams as she prepared for her comeback came in an exhibition in December against 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko. Next came a doubles match with older sister Venus for the US Fed Cup team in February.
Then came singles matches that actually counted, with two wins at Indian Wells, California, before a loss to Venus, followed by a first-round loss at the Miami Open on 21 March.
Williams then took another break to work on her game, and that absence of more than two months ended yesterday. And what a striking return it was, right down to the outfit – which called to mind the “catsuit” Williams wore at the 2002 US Open – and was paired with black high-top trainers sprinkled with silver glitter.
On her outfit, Williams revealed: “I feel like a warrior in it, like a warrior princess, kind of. I’m always living in a fantasy world. I always wanted to be a superhero, and it’s kind of my way of being a superhero. I feel like a superhero when I wear it.”
The very first game featured an ace at 112mph and when it ended with Pliskova netting a backhand, the chair umpire intoned, “Jeu, Madame Williams,” – French for “Game, Mrs Williams,” a change from the “Mademoiselle” officials use for unmarried female players.
Her next match is against Australian Ashleigh Barty.
Meanwhile, Maria Sharapova lost six games in a row and then won the next six as she got her return to Roland Garros off to a successful start.
The Russian appeared to be cruising at 6-1, 3-1 ahead but Holland’s Richel Hogenkamp suddenly had her on the ropes, taking the second set and racing 3-0 ahead in the decider, but Sharapova rediscovered her game in the nick of time to reel off half a dozen games for a 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 victory.
It was an ultimately sweet moment for the two-time Paris champion. This time last year Sharapova had recently returned from a 15-month doping ban, but had not built her ranking high enough to qualify and was not offered a wild card, but 12 months later Sharapova is back in the world’s top 30, seeded 28 at Roland Garros and a potential challenger for a third title.
“I think if there is any way to turn that match around, it’s that way,” she said. “It’s great to be in this draw and great to be back on a court that I have had great success at.”
Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza got the better of Svetlana Kuznetsova in a first-round meeting of two former winners.
After a 90-minute rain interruption at 5-5 in the first set Muguruza, the 2016 winner, blew 2009 champion Kuznetsova away in the tie-break and went on to win 7-6 (7/0), 6-2.
Caroline Garcia of France, the seventh seed, took just 58 minutes to dispatch China’s Yingying Duan 6-1, 6-0.