ASHEVILLE, N.C. — On the last day of Fed Cup at the U.S. Cellular Center, the final match had more of a World Cup atmosphere than a meaningless encounter.
The U.S. had already clinched the tie, but you would have thought everything was on the line based on the symphony of deafening vuvuzelas, piercing whistles and loud cheers.
Serena Williams was back.
Not only was she back, but she was paired with her older sister, Venus, reuniting one of the great doubles teams in history.
Although the Williams sisters lost in straight sets, the Americans won the first round of the World Group against the Netherlands, 3-1. Earlier Sunday, Venus secured the win with a 7-5, 6-1 win against Richel Hogenkamp.
Venus’ victory removed any possibility of Serena playing in a pressure situation, which in retrospect was a good thing. In doubles, Serena displayed some snippets of her greatness and, at times, showed lighting quick instincts and reflexes.
She demonstrated incredible power, clocking one serve at 114 miles per hour. At times, fans witnessed the emotion and inner fire that makes her one of the fiercest competitors.
Serena looked like a player who has been out of official action for more than a year.
She was playing doubles, so it was hard to get a true gauge of where she is at in her comeback, but Serena’s court coverage appeared limited.
The crowd saw a shell of a player who has won an Open era-record 23 majors, but they didn’t seem to mind.
At one point, they leaped to their feet when Serena hit a backhand winner that pulled the Americans to within 3-2 in the first set. A man’s shout of “I love you Serena” drew laughter after she hit an ace to help pull her team to within 2-1 in the second set.
Even though Serena and Venus lost the match, the fans were happy to see tennis royalty while also appreciating the fact that the U.S. advanced to play France in the Fed Cup semifinals on April 21.
Serena’s daughter, Alexis Olympia, wore a red and white headband and a blue-and-white striped USA shirt as she watched her mom play in a sanctioned match for the first time. (Alexis was also in Abu Dhabi for a December exhibition.)
“It felt really good to be back on the court,” Serena said afterward. “I’ve been training; it’s just exciting to be out there. A lot of nerves, but anticipation for myself. That’s good, I think that’s normal.”
It goes without saying the dynamics in Serena’s life are different. Not only does she face the challenge of getting back to where she was before she went on leave, but she has to accomplish that while traveling with a new baby and husband.
Time management is going to be crucial, and Serena admitted it’s going to take time to master.
“It’s an incredible learning experience,” she said. “I’m going to try to do better.”
Time management is one thing. Improving her game is another. And even though her play fell short of what where she was a year ago, Serena felt she exceeded her own expectations Sunday.
“I honestly feel better than I thought I was going to,” Serena said. “I feel like I’m on the right track.”
Venus powers United States into Fed Cup semis
Venus Williams outlasts the Netherlands’ Richel Hogenkamp in straight sets (7-5, 6-1) to give the United States a 3-0 lead in a best-of-five matchup.
In the coming weeks, Serena will take the dive into singles competitions that will give her a more accurate assessment of her progress.
Right now, she’s scheduled to play in a Tie Break Tens event in New York on March 5 and has been accepted an entry for Indian Wells that begins later that week. Serena could also see action in Miami, which begins mid-March.
It’s unlikely she will play all three events, but Serena will soon get a better sense of where she is now that her comeback has begun in earnest.
“She needs to play matches, get the first serve, the second serve, the returns, the court sense,” said Paul Haarhuis, the captain of the Netherlands. “That’s what she’s missing. That’s what everybody would be missing after a year off.”
But the immediate takeaway is that with help and support from her U.S. compatriots, the start of Serena’s rebuilding process is underway.
It might be awhile before it’s complete, but Serena is confident it will happen.
“If I walk out there with low expectations, then I need to stop what I’m doing,” Serena said. “So that’s never going to happen for me. I’m always going to have the best and highest expectations for myself.”