INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- It was fourteen years ago that Serena Williams, then 19-years-old, stood on Stadium Court at the BNP Paribas Open as the sound of boos rained down. On Friday night, the No. 1 American had to hold back tears as she stepped back onto the same court for the first time since to the welcome sound of a rapturous standing ovation, overwhelmed by the emotion of the moment she created when she decided to end her boycott of the tournament.
Watch her emotional walk out onto court:
Serena admitted she was worried about what the reception would be like when she retook the court. "I think they were tears just [being] overwhelming," she said. "At that moment I just felt so good to be out there. I felt like I made the right decision and I knew I wanted to do it. But up until that moment I didn't really know if it was the right thing for me to do. I feel like that's when I felt it was the right thing. And receiving the love from the crowd here, it really meant a lot to me."
Her mother Oracene Price was present as was her sister Isha, but absent were sister Venus and father Richard. Richard and Venus also bore the brunt of the booing back in 2001, but Serena insists she has her family's full support and says she spoke with both of them before the match.
It wasn't an easy night for Serena, who would go on to battle hard for over two hours to beat No. 68 Monica Niculescu 7-5, 7-5 to advance to the third round. This was Serena's first match in over a month and the rust—combined with the understandable nerves and emotion surrounding her much-hyped return—showed. That Niculescu consistently confounded her with her unorthodox gamestyle (more on that here) only compounded her struggles throughout the match. Though she possessed the power to overwhelm her opponent, Serena misfired on 48 unforced errors and struggled with her consistency off the ground. Two great shots would be followed up by two poor balls into the net and she was never able to build or maintain her momentum in the match.
Niculescu broke Serena three times in the first set and served for it at 5-4, but Serena played a strong a return game to break her serve and eventually pocket the first 7-5. The Romanian quieted any thoughts that the second set would fly by quickly, breaking Serena for a fourth time in the first game. But Serena broke back immediately and the two exchanged holds until Serena finally broke for the match with Niculescu serving at 5-6. In all, Serena hit 12 aces and 42 winners to her 48 unforced errors, while Niculescu hit 8 winners and 29 unforced errors.
Ever since Serena announced in February that she would return to the tournament that left such a heavy scar on her family, the theme has been forgiveness. Her last memories of this place were an ugly tangle. It was here that she won her first WTA match, in doubles with Venus, in 1997. She played one of her greatest matches two years later, beating Steffi Graf to win her first of two Indian Wells titles. When she played the tournament for the last time in 2001 she was a newly-minted Slam champion.
Then came 2001. She was set to play her sister in the semifinals before Venus withdrew with a knee injury. The withdrawal was announced at the last minute and ticketholders were angry they would not see the match they paid for. When Serena took the court to play Kim Clijsters in the final, the crowd booed. As Richard and Venus took their courtside seats in Serena's box the boos intensified. Serena defied the crowd and stood her ground, beating Clijsters to win her second title in the desert.
Did the crowd's boisterous reception on Friday night exorcise the demons of the past? "I can't say," Serena said. "I can only focus on right now, and today was a wonderful day for me, for women's tennis, for tennis in general, and for everyone."
Serena has been the ultimate ambassador in her return to the desert. She has stressed the importance of moving on from the events of 2001 and is eager to replace those horrible memories with positive ones.
"I think everyone in general has come a really long way," she said. "Everyone, especially the WTA and USTA, they really stepped up to the plate. I really appreciate all the love, not just for me, but for a lot of other players that they show."
It may have just been an opening round win for Williams, who will play No. 28 Zarina Diyas in the next round, but she puts the night as one the greatest moments of her storied career. "I feel like I've already won this tournament," she said. "I don't feel like I have to actually hold the trophy at the end of this. I feel like I'm already holding up a trophy. I have never felt that way before."
Watch the point of the match, a great cat and mouse exchange, below: