Serena Williams made an emotional return to Indian Wells after a 14-year hiatus yesterday, with the appreciative crowd affording her a standing ovation in place of the rough treatment from her previous visit to the Californian WTA Tour venue. She has not returned since 2001, the year she won the title, but was also subject to booing and heckling from the unhappy crowd, after a 'no show' by her sister, Venus in the semis. Williams was perhaps not at her best, but still had too much for the 27-year-old Romanian Monica Niculescu in a 7-5 7-5 triumph in round two. Heather Watson also continued her run at the event, winning her second round match against the Italian Camila Giorgi.
The bad feeling towards the Williams' sisters and their father, Richard, back in 2001 occurred after Venus was forced to pull out of the semi-final that year when scheduled to play her younger sister, citing tendonitis in her knee.
The packed-out stadium was only informed about the withdrawal minutes before they were due to play, which was clearly not well received by the crowd, who were also slightly sceptical as to the true extent of the alleged injury. At the time, the sisters were not as well-established in the game as they are now, so the fans were still essentially making their minds up about them and where to place them in their affections. Serena was booed in the final, as were her sister and father when they took their seats to watch. As emotions escalated because of the incident, their father suggested that he believed that the crowd were being racist, further alleging that his family had been insulted and subject to racist remarks. Clearly, Serena has decided that enough water has passed under the bridge since that fateful time to return, with initial signs looking very positive.
The match with Niculescu was close, but no one was going to deny the experienced American her victory and 'homecoming' celebration. Her success in straight sets was achieved in around two hours. Serena probably needed to 'just' get the win in the first match, to settle back into the event and feel that she belonged in the surroundings once more, after no doubt bringing some nerves and apprehension with her into the tournament after such a long time away.
Reflecting on the win, she said: "It is one of the biggest moments of my career. I feel like I've already won this tournament." Well, she hasn't really and there will no doubt be sterner tests to come over the next few days.
Heather Watson sealed her win with an identical scoreline to Serena, 7-5 7-5 against Giorgi. She is of course nowhere near as well respected or thought of by the American crowds as Serena, nor is she expected to feature in the later stages, yet she played well enough in her second round match to suggest that she should achieve plenty in the sport in years to come. By reaching the third round, she has already surpassed her previous best in Indian Wells, but had to hold off a spirited fight back from the Italian. The young Brit had seemed to be closing in for the win at 5-0 in the second set, only for Giorgi (ranked above Watson in the world rankings) to claim the next five games in succession and level at 5-5. Watson dug deep though and broke serve yet again to close out the match without the need for a tie-break. She will need to find another level one expects in the next round, where she faces number seven seed Agnieszka Radwanska in the last-32.