Serena Williams fought back tears and a game opponent in Monica Niculescu to prevail 7-5, 7-5 Friday night in the second round of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California.
After securing match point, it looked as if the 33-year-old had a thousand-pound weight lifted off her back, via a photo from the tournament's official Twitter account:
The match was particularly notable since it was Williams' first at Indian Wells following a 13-year hiatus.
Back in 2001, Williams beat Kim Clijsters in three sets to capture the title, which was then one of her biggest triumphs. But during the match, her father, Richard, and sister, Venus, were loudly jeered by the crowd.
She revealed in an op-ed for Time back in February that the experience soured Williams so much that she never returned to the tournament again until Friday night:
It has been difficult for me to forget spending hours crying in the Indian Wells locker room after winning in 2001, driving back to Los Angeles feeling as if I had lost the biggest game ever—not a mere tennis game but a bigger fight for equality. Emotionally it seemed easier to stay away. There are some who say I should never go back. There are others who say I should’ve returned years ago. I understand both perspectives very well and wrestled with them for a long time. I’m just following my heart on this one.
The return match was clearly an emotional one for her. As part of Bleacher Report's Uninterrupted series, Williams spoke about her feelings heading into her face-off with Niculescu:
Those in attendance welcomed Williams back with open arms, eliminating any chance of a repeat from 2001.
Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim noted Serena's opponent wasn't quite so welcoming. He compared Niculescu to Fabrice Santoro, whose style befuddled stars on the ATP Tour for years:
Williams needed 12 games to put the 27-year-old Romanian away in the first set, and her emotion upon securing the set was evidence of how much the match meant to her.
Grantland's Brian Phillips couldn't help but get wrapped up in the occasion:
Serena's venomous serve was her saving grace in the first set. She picked up seven aces and won 18 of her 25 first-service points. Her second serve wasn't quite as strong, but she managed to save six of Niculescu's eight break-point opportunities.
Relying upon his past experiences, Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times wondered whether Niculescu's style would prove to be her own undoing:
On the contrary, Williams encountered another dogfight in the second set. Despite roughly quadrupling Niculescu's number of winners over the course of the entire match, she couldn't find the combination that would solve Niculescu's junk-ball style.
Williams had two match points with the second set at 5-4, but Niculescu held serve on both occasions and tied the set up at 5-5. Williams' exasperation was visible at that stage of the match.
Serena responded with a hold of her own and eventually broke Niculescu in the 12th game to wrap up a hard-fought victory.
She'll face Zarina Diyas in the next round. The two have yet to meet one another head-to-head on the WTA Tour.
With that difficult first match under her belt at Indian Wells, Williams should look more like her old self when she takes the court next.