Her return was always going to be emotional, and sure enough, as she walked back onto a Stadium Court lit up by floodlights and flashing cameras, she fought back tears at one of the longest ovations she will ever receive.
In truth, she unsure how to react, so kept it simple: She raised her arm for a single wave and went about the usual, calming business of preparing for the first match in a tournament. Except, of course, this was not any first match nor any tournament.
It had been 14 years since Williams last trod this court, as 2001 champion, and she and sister Venus would then turn their backs on Indian Wells after their on-court reception following Venus’s withdrawal from their semi-final with injury.
So champion Serena’s return after 14 years away was a big step towards reconciliation. She made it all the way to the semis, and returning this year in a rather calmer, more relaxed atmosphere, she is favourite to become the first woman to win this title three times.
This year, though, it has been the turn of the other Williams to take her courage in both hands, following the lead of her younger sister, and plunge into the indigo pool in the desert. Venus, who turns 36 this June, decided it was time to make her own peace with Indian Wells, and returned after a 15-year absence.
That the seven-time Grand Slam champion is still playing 16 years after winning her first Major is remarkable enough: That she is still ranked No12 in the world, and won her 49th title last month in Taiwan, is still more impressive—and all the more so because her career almost stalled with the diagnosis of Sjogrens Syndrome in 2011.
But had it not been for her sister’s bold step last year, she may never again have played here. Venus explained it all in a moving piece for The Players’ Tribune.
“I remember the pain of my knee injury, and how badly I wanted to play in the  semis against Serena—before finally accepting that I wouldn’t be able to. I remember the accusations toward me and my sister and our father. I remember the crowd’s reaction as I walked to my seat during Serena’s match in the final. And I remember how I couldn’t understand why thousands of people would be acting this way—to a 19-year-old and a 20-year-old, trying their best.
“There are certain things where, if you go through them at a certain age, you simply don’t forget them… Not feeling welcome somewhere is a hard memory to let go of—at any age…
“But then I saw Serena. And it was in that moment, seeing Serena welcomed with open arms last year at Indian Wells, that I think I fully and truly realised what being the big sister means. It means that, for all of the things I did first, and all of the times when I paved the way for Serena, the thing I can be most proud of is this time. When Serena paved the way for me.”
Venus’s reception on court was as enthusiastic as her sister’s had been 12 months ago, though it was not under the lights, but under blue sky and racing clouds, set to the soundtrack of The Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back”.
She could hardly stop smiling, waved to the crowd, put her hand to her heart, beamed again. And afterwards, still smiling despite losing 6-4, 6-3 to qualifier Kumura Nara, she enthused: “It was wonderful. I think I smiled the whole warm-up. I had to get my game face on. It was tough to do.
“Fifteen years later, to have such a joyous return, is more than I could have ever asked for. It’s such a blessing.”
And she paid tribute to the sister who paved the way: “I definitely thought to myself, I’ve got no reason not to go any more. She had so much courage to do so. It made it so easy for me. I felt like when I came out here I was able to focus on the tennis and not on, ‘Oh, my gosh, what’s gonna happen?’”
Perhaps the fairytale ending would have seen Venus win and advance all the way to a possible quarter-final contest with her sister, after a 15-year delay to that famous—infamous—semi-final where this Indian Wells saga began.
On the court, though, it proved to be rather different from Serena’s return. A rain delay of half an hour at 3-3 was followed with a break by Venus, but Nara broke back and broke again for the first set.
There were multiple breaks on both sides in the second set, but Venus’s plummeting service level proved fatal: In this set alone, she won just nine points from 28 serves. Nara took one more break than Williams, and set and match, after an hour and 40 minutes.
Williams admitted: “Not everything can end fairy tale. It’s enough of a fairy tale to be here. Doesn’t mean that I can’t come back next year and try to do even better.”
Music to everyone’s ears, then, for some had interpreted her decision to make peace in Indian Wells as a sign that the American was bidding farewell.
As it transpired, Venus was not the only seed to fall from sister Serena’s quarter. The younger Williams’ first seeded opponent, No27 Kristina Mladenovic, lost to Yulia Putintseva. Her scheduled fourth-round opponents, No15 Sara Errani and No25 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, gave way to Lesia Tsurenko and Kateryna Bondarenko respectively. And No22 seed Andrea Petkovic joined Venus on the sidelines, leaving No30 Ekaterina Makarova and defending champion and No5 seed Simona Halep to fight it out for a likely quarter-final place against Serena.
Serena’s first appearance of the tournament was short and sweet in a very different way from her sister’s. By the time she took on qualifier Laura Siegemund, the rain had gone, but it remained cool. The form of the American in her first match since losing the final of the Australian Open, however, was far from cool.
She saved the only break point she faced in the first set in the opening game, and broke twice for 6-2. She broke twice more in the second to complete the win, 6-1, in 63 minutes.
In the other quarter of the top half, four more seeds lost their opening matches: Sabine Lisicki to Johanna Larsson, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2; Madison Keys to Nicole Gibbs, 6-3, 6-3; Lucie Safarova to Yaroslava Shvedova, 6-3, 6-4; and Svetlana Kuznetsova to Coco Vandeweghe, 6-4, 6-3.
Agnieszka Radwanska survived a tough challenge from Dominika Cibulkova, 6-3, 3-6, 7-5, and will meet Monica Niculescu, who beat Briton Heather Watson, 6-4, 2-6, 6-2.
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