(March 13, 2015) INDIAN WELLS, CALIFORNIA – It was always going to be emotional, and watching Serena Williams’ sisters with tears streaming at the welcoming roar from the crowd, and Williams barely struggling to keep her own emotions in check, we knew this night had the potential to be special.
We also expected nerves, and there were plenty with Williams giving up her first service game, giving Romania’s Monica Niculescu an easy start to the proceedings. She came to play too, holding her serve forcing Williams into a battle royal in just the third game to hold her serve and get on the board.
It was a short respite though as Niculescu broke, forcing Williams on the back foot once more with all manner of frying-pan type defensive swipes to get out of trouble, holding for a 5-3 lead. As tends to be the way, Williams found her serve, and her trademark roar to keep herself in contention, for a chance for us to see what Niculescu was made of. Williams broke to level at 5-5 and on to take the advantage for a 6-5 lead. As Williams pocketed the first set perhaps there was a suspicion that she would romp home from there.
Give Niculescu her credit, she walked out there with a big beaming smile, and was ready to play and she threw over cut, sliced and diced forehand, every loopy spin she could at Williams and more often than not had her on the back-foot, or rushed her into errors.
But you do not amass 55 titles from that fateful day in 2001, including 18 Grand Slams without learning how to dig yourself out of a hole. Time and again, Williams found a first serve when she had to, drove home a winner when she could, to make up for some howling errors along the way.
After the emotional entrance, it was almost a quite moment of contemplation for the two-tome champion as Niculescu dumped the ball into the net after saving three match points. She was rightly disappointed – this had been a match that could have turned on a dime.
Williams had great control of her emotions at the end, and the crowd thankfully showed their appreciation for a 19-time Grand Slam champion, an enduring World No. 1 and possibly on the way to being the greatest female tennis player of all time.
Williams said in her on court interview that it was all about creating new memories – and she now has the small matter of the rest of the tournament to go.