“Greatest Momma” Serena comes back with a win

By Art Spander

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Subtle it wasn’t. Not when her husband paid for four billboards east of Palm Springs, one announcing “GREATEST MOMMA OF ALL TIME.” Not when she posted a video gushing, “My comeback is here.”

But successful it was, and in tennis, in sport, isn’t that what matters most?

Serena Williams, 23 times a Grand Slam winner, one time a mother — and that one time has kept her from playing on the WTA Tour for 14 months — made her comeback Thursday night at the BNP Paribas Open, defeating Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan, 7-5, 6-3.

“It was meant to be, coming on International Women’s Day,” said Williams, a feminist as well as a champion. Maybe so, but Serena struggled against a lady she had beaten twice and who is 53rd in the rankings.

“It definitely wasn’t easy,” Williams said post-match to a crowd that on a 68-degree evening maybe half-filled the 16,100-seat main stadium at Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

“But it was good,” she said, adding, “I’m a little rusty.”

And like golfer Tiger Woods in this winter of comebacks, understandably so.

It’s one thing to drop off the tour for any length of time. It’s another to give birth, by Caesarian section, develop blood clots, and then need to take care of an infant daughter.

But all is well, for Serena; for daughter Alexis Olympia, now some seven months old; and for father Alexis Ohanion, Sr., founder of the social news website Reddit, who a few weeks ago created the billboards along Interstate 10 dedicated to his bride.

Tennis and golf are built on stars, the rich and famous. And as his return has boosted galleries and TV ratings, there’s nobody more famous in men’s golf than Tiger, even at age 43. There’s nobody more famous in women’s tennis than Serena, age 36.

In America, at least, nobody comes close to Serena, as a winner, a fan favorite and an attraction. When you’re known by just one name, as is Serena, or Tiger, you’re queen or king of the hill, top of the heap.

Serena needed no extra promotion coming into this match, which was preceded by a glamorized exhibition (on ESPN, naturally) and a team competition in which Serena linked with her 37-year old sister, Venus.

When you get as many stories in People magazine as you do in Sports Illustrated, there’s no question why her return was major news, especially in the California desert, which with all the movie folk seems like just another part of Hollywood, 140 miles to the west.

Serena won the Australian Open in January 2017, eight weeks pregnant at the time, as she and we found out. Then she was told to give up competitive tennis until after the baby was born. She did that.

Diyas, 24, served to open the match against Williams, and both women held serve until it was 5-5. You heard a few plaintive wails from the less-expensive seats on high — “Come on, Serena; let’s go Serena.” And finally in the 11th game, Serena broke serve for a 6-5 lead.

After that, Williams settled down.

“It’s so hard when you haven’t been playing matches,” said Williams after the victory — long after, having showered and dressed.

She said she almost cried before the match having to leave her daughter and go on court. “But playing at night made it easier, because I knew she was sleeping.”

Early on, it seemed Serena was sleeping. On the contrary, she was adjusting. The moves, the responses developed over the years, had to be relearned.

“It’s totally expected,” she said. “I’m not going to be where I want to be.”

Where she wants to be presumably is where she was. Time takes its toll, certainly, yet the triumphs of Roger Federer, at 39, show that age no longer is the barrier it used to be.

“I felt I had nothing to lose,” she said of the return. “I didn’t feel the stress I had felt. I was just happy to be here, like when I was young and just starting on Tour. Just excited to be here.”

As tennis, and all of sport, is to have her here.

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