Rome: Serena Williams made a winning return from injury beating Swedish qualifier Rebecca Petersen 6-4, 6-2 to advance to the second round of the Italian Open clay-court tournament yesterday.
Serena, 37, has not played since a hard-fought three-set win over Petersen in the second round at the Miami Open in March before withdrawing with a knee injury.
The 23-time Grand Slam winner – now ranked 11th – also withdrew from Indian Wells in March complaining of illness.
Watched by her husband Alexis Ohanian, Serena sealed victory on her second match point against her 64th-ranked opponent after 76 minutes on court in the tournament which acts as a warm-up for the French Open in two weeks’ time.
“I felt good, I wasn’t sure how it was going to feel,” said Serena, who hit 10 aces. “It’s been a while, I haven’t played a ton of matches this year, not by choice, just by force.
“I really, really, actually desperately wanted to be on the tour and to be playing, but it hasn’t been able to work out.
“It felt good to finally be back out. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep it up.
“I got here pretty early really, I wanted to get used to the conditions and ‘real clay’ and it was good I did that.”
Petersen looked set to push the former world number one going 3-1 up in the first set, but 10th-seeded Serena won five of the next six games.
She broke twice more in the second and survived two break points against her while serving for the match, sealing victory after double-faulting on her first match point.
Serena will next take on older sister Venus in the second round after the latter battled past Elise Mertens 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (7/4).
Venus came out on top of a tight contest that went all the way to a third-set tie-break despite her winning five games on the bounce, letting the Belgian back in by missing six match points on her serve in the eighth game.
She missed a further two match points as Mertens battled to level the set at 6-6, before finally taking the match in the tie-break and setting up a headline-grabbing clash with her 10th-seed sibling.
It will be Serena and Venus’ first meeting on European clay in nearly 17 years.
Serena admitted it has been a struggle to maintain her fitness as she recovered from injury.
“I haven’t been able to train or practice a lot, I was out much longer than I expected,” she explained. “I did everything I could to stay fit and keep my cardio up.
“I love the clay season and wanted to do everything to be a part of it and I’m here. I’ve just been on this diet basically. It’s been awful. When you’re sedentary, it becomes hard to manage your body. So it’s just basically you have to eat grass. It was a nightmare.”