Torches lit the player party on a chilly Dubai evening, but Serena Williams was in no mood for merriment. Wearing the pained expression of a woman plagued by a major migraine—dangerous left-hander Ekaterina Makarova—the world No. 1 was blowing her nose and scanning her notes during changeovers, shoving the air in disgust when her shots sailed, and struggling to find her feet in her return to tournament tennis.
Annoyance boiled over into frustration—then Serena snapped. When Makarova slid a slicing serve winner down the middle to hold for 5-3, Williams wound up and spiked her Wilson racquet to the court in three decapitating strikes, creating a mangled mess of the frame and incurring a code violation warning in the process.
It was the most authoritative shot Serena struck to that point, but smashing the stick seemed to soothe the top seed’s nerve. Picking up the pace with added sting on her shots, Williams won eight straight points, fought off two set points in a first-set tiebreaker, and reeled off nine of the last 10 games to roar back for a 7-6 (8), 6-0 victory in her first match since losing to Ana Ivanovic in last month's Australian Open.
The 24th-ranked Russian beat Serena at the 2012 Australian Open, then knocked Venus out of Melbourne last month to become the only woman who has never held the No. 1 ranking to beat the Williams sisters in Grand Slam play. An all-court player, Makarova used the slice serve down the middle to stretch Williams and set up her forehand. She lays her wrist back on that sweeping stroke, which disguises its direction.
Deadlocked at 5-all, Makarova had a good look at a forehand pass on break point, but netted it. Williams slammed an ace to earn a hard-fought hold for 6-5, saving two break points before Makarova dug in to save a set point and navigate a demanding 10-minute hold to force the tiebreaker.
Momentum shifts zig-zagged during the breaker. Williams double-faulted and missed a running backhand to give Makarova two set points at 6-4. But an audacious Williams forehand drop shot that looked like a bail-out set up an easy forehand pass for Serena. Williams saved the second set point by hammering a heavy wide serve for 6-all.
Makarova withstood two more set points before Serena slammed a gutsy second serve off the line and into the body for 9-8, before finally ending the 66-minute opener with a jagged inside-out forehand return.
Former French Open champion Anastasia Myskina, who is Makarova’s coach, came out for counsel using an interesting approach. Rather than sit directly in front of her player, as most coaches do, Myskina dropped down on the seat next to her charge as if sharing a secret with a doubles partner. I don’t know what Myskina told Makarova, but in retrospect, something along the lines of “buckle up” may have been in order.
Once Williams, who is returning from a back injury, shook off the rust and found the higher gear to her game, she quickly put separation between the pair, breaking three times in a row for 5-0. Moving closer to the baseline, commanding the center of the court, and tracking down nearly every ball, Williams took charge. Makarova kept pushing to gain three break points in the final game, but Williams closed in one hour and 36 minutes to reach the quarterfinals in a match that was about her fight as much as her form.
“Honestly, I just kept fighting,” Williams told TennisTV.com’s Annabel Croft afterward. “She hit some unbelievable shots and I just kept fighting. I just did the best I could on those [tiebreaker] points and I’m glad I won…I’m a really intense person and hopefully it will pay off.”