Thursday, April 18, 2024

Serena grinds out win in return to Indian Wells

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INDIAN WELLS, Calif. (AP) – An error-prone Serena Williams beat Monica Niculescu 7-5, 7-5 in her first match at Indian Wells in 14 years Friday night, receiving a warm welcome from the fans in sharp contrast to the booing that drove her away as a teenager.

Williams rallied from a 5-3 deficit in the first set and recovered after blowing three leads in the second set, winning on her fourth match point in her first tournament since earning her 19th Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in January.

Williams had 48 unforced errors and 12 aces in a wildly inconsistent performance. She closed out the 2-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.

“It feels great; it’s overwhelming walking out here. The cheering was really a wonderful feeling,” Williams said in an on-court interview afterward. “It’s been wonderful coming back and stepping out on the court and creating new memories.”

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 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 from father Richard.

Williams walked onto the court wearing headphones, then slipped them off and raised her right arm to acknowledge the sustained applause as she was introduced.

“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 warmup. He was later joined by John McEnroe and billionaire Bill Gates.

Williams had played just one Fed Cup match since winning in Australia and her rustiness showed.

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