A motivated Serena Williams encourages with return win at Indian Wells

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Serena Williams played her first singles match since the 2017 Australian Open and won, 7-5, 6-3. (AP)

INDIAN WELLS, Calif.—Depending on your perspective, Serena Williams’ last competitive tennis match prior to Friday night's WTA return at the BNP Paribas Open was one of two contests. There was her last tournament match, at the 2017 Australian Open, a straight-set victory over her sister Venus in which Serena claimed her 23rd Grand Slam singles title and the mythical title of Greatest of All Time. Alternatively, there was her last professional match, a dismal effort in a Fed Cup doubles dead rubber that left some to question whether this new mother and paragon of athletics should even be playing the sport she’s mastered.

No matter which match you sided with, there was something to be taken away from Williams’ 7-5, 6-3 victory over 53rd-ranked Zarina Diyas that left you encouraged about the on-court future of this undisputed champion.

For those observers who couldn’t get the doubles dud out of their heads, it didn’t take long for Williams to erase it from memory. By the 20-minute mark of this first-round match, she was finding a groove with her forehands, backhands and returns, a trip down memory lane in the desert. Williams' signature serve may have been her weakest shot of the night, a reflection of rust and Diyas’ own success on service—the 24-year-old won 60 percent of her first-serve points, just three points off Williams’ conversion rate.

Williams made precise and early contact with her groundstrokes, resulting in the kinds of hard-hit and sharply-angled shots she’s known for, and she changed direction with the ball without difficulty. It was Williams who was the better mover tonight, even when Diyas drew the American forward with a drop shot or tried to hit away from her in rallies.

Was it vintage Williams on this evening? Hardly. Rarely has she let an opponent off the hook when she earned five break points in the span of a few minutes, but Diyas escaped with a hard-fought hold in the fifth game. Williams also lost leads of 2-1 and 3-2 in the second set, giving Diyas and the crowd a chance to consider a contest than could go the distance.

But above all, Diyas was the ideal opponent for Williams to meet in a draw that could have placed her against anyone, right from the start. For fellow unseeded career Grand Slammer Maria Sharapova, that meant a tough and ultimately futile first-rounder against Naomi Osaka. For Williams, it was Diyas, a largely unthreatening opponent even on her better days. She certainly made Williams sweat on this idyllic evening, but she never made Williams, or her thousands of fans in the crowd, truly worry.

“We’ve had tight sets,” said Williams after it was all over in one hour and 32 minutes. “I’m a little rusty, but it doesn’t matter. I’m just on this journey and I’m doing the best I can.”

With a crowd stretching into the upper reaches of Stadium 1, this first-rounder had the feel of a final. It started with 10 consecutive holds before Williams put Diyas in a 0-15 hole that felt deeper than a single point. While Williams didn’t win the next point, it featured an array of shots that signaled her presence—the depth and pace were back, the focus was back, and Diyas was in trouble.

When Williams took the game with a Diyas unforced error, Williams shouted a loud “Come on!”; the crowd shouted back its approval. The Serena Show had officially returned.

“It was incredible,” said Williams. “It’s been over a year, and a kid later.”

To Diyas’ credit, she stemmed the rising Williams tide, pushing back with counterpunching and scrambling that made the second set a battle of its own. But by this point, Williams had found her shots, and included her serve. She punctuated a love hold for 5-3 with an ace, which was originally challenged by Diyas. The replay showed the ball’s imprint almost perfectly splitting the corner of the service box.

It was not a perfect performance from the legend and icon, but it was better than most could have expected—perhaps even Williams herself. That was important for her, on International Women’s Day, and at a time when Williams, who gave birth to her first child in September (no baby spotted in the crowd), is more of a role model than ever.

“I’m so excited to play on this night,” said Williams to the adulating crowd. “It was meant to be.”

WTA Indian Wells is on Tennis Channel Plus.

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