INDIAN WELLS, Calif. (AP) — Serena Williams has won the first set in her comeback at the BNP Paribas Open after a 14-month layoff for the birth of her first child.
The 23-time major winner took the opening set 7-5 from Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan in their first-round match Thursday night.
With new husband and Reddit co-found Alexis Ohanian looking on, Williams played from behind until breaking Diyas in the 11th game. Diyas netted a forehand and Williams yelled, “Come on!” as the crowd cheered.
Williams served a love game capped by a 100-mph ace in her first service game. She had break points in the first and fifth games but couldn’t convert. She started hitting harder and her familiar grunting returned when she tied the set 5-all.
Also in her box was Williams’ mother Oracene, sisters Lyndrea and Isha, her agent, and her coach Patrick Mouratoglou. Older sister Venus watched from a balcony seat in an upper-level box on a 68-degree night in the Southern California desert.
Williams has been away since winning the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant. She gave birth to daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. six months ago.
Ohanian bought four billboards along Interstate 10 outside Palm Springs in tribute to his wife. The fourth billboard shows a photo of Williams and their daughter with the phrase “G.M.O.A.T” — greatest mother of all time — and is signed by Alexis Sr. and Jr.
Williams’ only competitive appearances since the birth came in December at an exhibition in Abu Dhabi, a Fed Cup doubles match with sister Venus last month and an exhibition in New York on Monday.
She is playing at Indian Wells under a protected ranking of 22nd. Williams hasn’t been unseeded at a tournament since 2011 in Cincinnati.
Victoria Azarenka of Belarus was to follow Williams on stadium court. The two-time winner of the desert tournament needed a wild card to get in because she has been off the tour since Wimbledon. Azarenka, who gave birth to son Leo in December 2016, has been in a custody fight that limited her travel. She was to play Heather Watson of Britain.
In other first-round matches, CiCi Bellis overpowered qualifier Sara Sorribes Tormo 6-0, 6-3.
The 18-year-old American, who turned down a full scholarship from Stanford to turn pro last August, had her serve broken just once by the Spaniard in the 65-minute match. Bellis earned a second-round matchup with defending champion Elena Vesnina of Russia.
Bellis led five Americans into the second round. She was joined by wild card Danielle Collins and Jennifer Brady, who both got stretched to three sets. Taylor Fritz needed three sets to advance in the men’s draw as did Mitchell Krueger and Jared Donaldson.
Other winners Thursday were Olympic gold medalist Monica Puig of Puerto Rico, qualifier Yanina Wickmayer of Belgium and Fernando Verdasco of Spain.
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