She’s stayed away from the BNP Paribas Open since winning the 2001 title as a 19-year-old, getting booed by the fans for what happened a day earlier, when she was to play older sister Venus in a semifinal and Venus withdrew because of injury 20 minutes before the start.
She will play Monica Niculescu of Romania in a second-round match Friday night.
“I’m looking forward to stepping out on center court and letting the whole world know that it doesn’t matter what you face, if it’s something that wasn’t right, hurt you, hurt your family, you can just come out and be strong and say, `I’m still going to be here, I’m still going to survive and I’m still going to be the best person I can be,”’ Williams said Thursday.
Williams is 14-1 with two titles to her credit in three previous appearances in the desert.
In early matches Friday, No. 3 seed Simona Halep beat qualifier Dana Gavrilova 2-6, 6-1, 6-2 and No. 8 Ekaterina Makarova beat Elena Vesnina 6-4, 6-0.
Williams’ match was one of nine involving Americans, with three advancing early on in 90-degree heat, unusual for this time of year.
Sloane Stephens upset 13th-seeded Angelique Kerber 7-6 (8), 6-2 in second-round play.
On the men’s side, Donald Young and Steve Johnson advanced to the second round in straight sets. Young defeated Pablo Carreno Busta 6-3, 6-4 and Johnson beat Marcel Granollers 6-2, 6-3.
Williams’ return was welcomed by tournament officials, although the event had hardly stagnated in her absence. It is one of the best attended outside of the four Grand Slam events, with close to 450,000 expected through the gates during the two weeks.
Nike took out a full-page color ad on the back of the Los Angeles Times sports section Friday, featuring Williams’ hand with her distinctive nail art tossing up a ball. It read, “At age 19 I was dealt the hardest serve of my career. A serve that I didn’t know how to handle. One that I thought time would take care of. That 18 major titles could easily put away. I’ve finally figured out there is no way I can return that serve if I’m not facing it.”
Caroline Wozniacki, one of Williams’ closest friends in tennis, is among several players glad to see her back.
“It’s a big step for her and I’m sure she’s going to handle it great,” Wozniacki said.
Venus Williams hasn’t changed her mind about boycotting Indian Wells, although she and the sisters’ parents are supportive of Serena’s return. In 2001, her father Richard said he heard racial taunts from the crowd, and there was speculation that he dictated which sister would win their meetings.
Now 33, Serena said it wasn’t one thing in particular that brought her back to the tournament that she had vowed she would never play again. (AP)