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Serena Williams almost cried before winning comeback match

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INDIAN WELLS, Calif. (AP) — Walking on court for the first match of her latest comeback, Serena Williams allowed herself a rare smile. This time, tennis is different for the 23-time major winner.

What didn’t change is Williams winning.

She beat Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan 7-5, 6-3 in the first round of the BNP Paribas Open on Thursday night after a 14-month layoff for the birth of her first daughter.

“I almost cried before the match,” Williams said. “I texted Alexis, I was like, is it normal that I want to cry? I really missed her, but playing at night really helped because I know she goes to bed and she goes to sleep. I can’t like play with her right now.”

With new husband and Reddit co-found Alexis Ohanian looking on, Williams played from behind until breaking Diyas in the 11th game of the first set. Diyas netted a forehand and Williams yelled, “Come on!” as the crowd cheered.

“Right now, for this particular tournament, I’m really just trying to take it easy and not put so much pressure or stress or expectation on myself,” she said. “I feel like it’s one of the few times I’ve been able to do that.”

Williams has been away since winning the 2017 Australian Open early in her pregnancy. She gave birth to Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. six months ago.

Williams is playing at Indian Wells under a protected ranking of 22nd. She hasn’t been unseeded at a tournament since 2011 in Cincinnati.

“I’m playing with nothing to lose, I only can gain,” she said. “For me, it’s a real joy to be out here.”

The half-full stadium warmly greeted Williams, with many fans giving her a standing ovation as she entered.

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.

Diyas and Williams traded service breaks early in the second set. Williams then broke her opponent again en route to winning the final five games in front of the half-full stadium. She smiled as she walked to the net, and her family gave her a standing ovation.

“It definitely wasn’t easy,” Williams said on court. “We always have a couple tight sets. It was good. I’m a little rusty, but it doesn’t matter. I’m just out here on this journey and doing the best I can.”

Also in Williams’ box were her 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.

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.

Now she’s traveling the tour with her baby and sometimes her husband, when he isn’t off working.

“I’ve never done this before,” she said. “I know I’ll make mistakes and I’m OK with that.”

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.

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Serena Williams set for first WTA match in 14 months

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INDIAN WELLS, Calif. (AP) — Serena Williams makes her return to the pro tour after a 14-month absence with a first-round match at the BNP Paribas Open on Thursday.

She will play Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan in a night match at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

Williams has played just one Fed Cup doubles match while away from the WTA Tour. The former world No. 1 is unseeded and as a result did not receive a first-round bye.

The new mother, who gave birth in September, will try to become the first woman to win three singles titles in the desert. Her other titles came in 1999 and 2001 before she boycotted the event for several years.

Williams, a winner of 23 Grand Slam titles, is in the same quarter of the draw as older sister Venus Williams. The siblings could potentially face each other in the third round.

Also set to play Thursday night is another new mom, Victoria Azarenka, a two-time tourney winner who got into the main draw with a wild card.

Two-time winner Maria Sharapova returns to the desert for the first time in three years. She plays Naomi Osaka of Japan on Wednesday.

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Serena Williams to miss Australian Open

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Defending champion Serena Williams has withdrawn from the Australian Open, saying she is not ready to return to tournament tennis.

The season’s first major starts on Jan. 15 at Melbourne Park and seven-time Australian Open champion Williams will be missing it for the first time since 2011.

Williams was pregnant with her first child when she won here last year to collect her Open-era record 23rd Grand Slam singles title.

The four-time Olympic gold medalist gave birth to her daughter, Alexis, in September.

Williams played in an exhibition tournament last week in Abu Dhabi and indicated after her loss to French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko that she might not make it to Melbourne.

“After competing in Abu Dhabi I realized that although I am super close, I’m not where I personally want to be,” Williams said in a statement released Friday by Australian Open organizers.

“My coach and team always said ‘only go to tournaments when you are prepared to go all the way.’ I can compete – but I don’t want to just compete, I want to do far better than that and to do so, I will need a little more time.

“With that being said, and even though I am disappointed about it, I’ve decided not to compete in the Australian Open this year.”

The 36-year-old Williams needs one more Grand Slam singles title to equal the all-time record held by Margaret Court, who won 24 titles before and during the Open era.

Her withdrawal comes less than 24 hours after fellow former world No.1 Andy Murray withdrew from the men’s event with a chronic hip injury.

Several other stars, including top-ranked Rafael Nadal, six-time champion Novak Djokovic and 2014 winner Stan Wawrinka, also are dealing with injuries.

Williams last year beat sister Venus Williams in the final, and later revealed she played the tournament despite knowing she was pregnant.

Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said Williams waited as long as she could before letting organizers know she wouldn’t be able to compete.

“I’ve been in constant contact with Serena and her team and know this is why she has pushed it and pushed it until the 11th hour to make her final decision,” Tiley said.

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