Serena powers to 1st win in comeback with baby on her mind

Serena Williams prepares to hit a forehand to Zarina Diyas during the first round of the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament in Indian Wells, Calif., Thursday, March 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Crystal Chatham)

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. (AP) Serena Williams’ power game is intact, whether she’s firing aces or smashing groundstrokes. Her grit is there, too.

Her timing may be a little off and the unforced errors are a clue she has been away for 14 months.

All in all, the 23-time major winner is glad to be back on the job with a new husband and 6-month-old baby.

Williams began her latest comeback with a 7-5, 6-3 victory over Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan in the first round of the BNP Paribas Open on Thursday night.

”I’m not where I want to be, but I’m getting there,” she said. ”Every day is going to be a challenge for me, but I know I’ll overcome it.”

Away since winning the 2017 Australian Open early in her pregnancy, Williams gave birth to Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. in September and married Alexis Ohanian in November.

She’s playing under a protected ranking of 22nd and hasn’t been unseeded at a tournament since 2011 in Cincinnati.

”I’m a little rusty, but it doesn’t matter,” she said. ”I’m just out here on this journey and doing the best I can.”

Another new mother, Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, won her first-round match over Heather Watson 6-4, 6-2.

”Walking out on court I felt so much love and almost had tears in my eyes,” Azarenka said. ”It really means the world to me to be able to be here and play and enjoy myself and do what I like to do.”

Azarenka, who like Williams is a two-time winner of the desert tournament, has been off the tour since Wimbledon. She gave birth to son Leo in December 2016 and has been in a custody fight that limited her travel.

Williams said she texted Azarenka when she was pregnant to ask questions.

”She’s been incredibly helpful,” Williams said. ”She’s such a great mom. I got to meet her little baby when he was so young.”

Williams plays No. 29 seed Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands and Azarenka plays U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens in the second round on Saturday. Williams could potentially meet older sister Venus in the third round if both win their next matches.

Away from the court, it’s all about her baby.

Venus said her 36-year-old sister acts like a child herself, and Serena said that’s why she gets along so well with her daughter.

”We play games. I can’t wait for her to grow up because we’re going to go to Disney every week,” she said. ”I don’t know if it’s going to be for her or for me more. I have an excuse to watch certain programs that are animated.”

Ohanian bought four billboards along Interstate 10 outside Palm Springs in tribute to his wife. The fourth billboard shows a photo of Williams and their daughter with the phrase ”G.M.O.A.T” – greatest mother of all time – and is signed by Alexis Sr. and Jr.

Williams said she almost cried before her match because she missed her daughter, who was sleeping at their home while the rest of her family watched in the stands.

”My favorite thing is definitely her toothless smile. It’s absolutely my favorite thing,” she said. ”Just holding her and the way my heart skips a beat. I never thought about that.”

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