Williams’s daughter was born in September after an emergency cesarean section, and Williams experienced serious complications after the birth and did not return to the practice court until December, after her wedding to Alexis Ohanian. She played and lost an exhibition match on Dec. 30 in Abu Dhabi against Jelena Ostapenko before deciding not to defend her Australian Open title.
Tracy Austin, the former No. 1 who is now a Tennis Channel analyst, watched both that loss and Sunday’s closely.
“Serena served a lot better today than she did in Abu Dhabi,” Austin said in an interview Sunday. “She obviously has come back from layoffs before, but she has not come back from a maternity leave and a C-section with complications at age 36. So I’m sure she understands she needs time.”
Williams said she was still learning how to manage traveling with a baby, but she did not sound in a particularly patient frame of mind about her level of play.
“If I walk out there with low expectations, then I need to stop doing what I do,” she said. “So that’s never going to happen for me. I’m always going to have the best and highest expectations for myself. I’m O.K. with that, because that’s just who I am.”
One of the most pressing questions is how long it will take her to regain full mobility. She appears to be carrying significantly more weight than she was when she won her 23rd Grand Slam singles title in Australia last year.
“Above all, it’s great that she’s back on court,” said Kathy Rinaldi, the United States Fed Cup captain. “She’s got the fire, as you can see, still in her belly to play, and she has to start somewhere. So I think this was a perfect fit, and we’re just so thankful that she and Venus both played and that they could play together in their first match back.
“It’s a great start for Serena. I think she’s gotten better and better every day here, and she’s been training, and when Serena Williams puts her mind to something, she usually accomplishes it.”
Rinaldi remains undefeated as captain after the U.S. team won the Fed Cup in her first year in charge in 2017. Venus Williams clinched this 3-1 victory with a 7-5, 6-1 victory over Richel Hogenkamp in Sunday’s first match. The United States will now travel to France for the semifinal in April.
“It would be an honor to play against the United States especially if it was at full strength,” Yannick Noah, the French Fed Cup captain, said on Sunday. “Imagine the motivation for us if the Williamses play.”
That is far from certain. Fed Cup has rarely been at the top of the priority list for the sisters, although both of them expressed a desire on Sunday night to be part of the semifinal. Both also will need to be part of two more Fed Cup teams between now and the summer of 2020 to be eligible to play in the next Olympics.
“Ultimately it’s up to Kathy,” Serena Williams said. “She has a plethora of players to choose from, so many American players that are doing great. Hopefully I’ll be able to be an option, to be able to do better by then.”
For now, she has no ranking and will not be seeded when she returns to the WTA Tour for her first individual tournament of 2018. Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said he expected Williams to play at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., early next month.
Her performance here should take some of the edge off her first singles match, where there will be much (much) more to play for than there was on Sunday.
“This was a nice, soft reintroduction,” Austin said. “It won’t be as big a deal the next time.”
But even if she needs and deserves time to get her game back in order, the big expectations remain: hers and her public’s. She has won too often for too long to have it any other way.