INDIAN WELLS, United States - Serena Williams won her first match at Indian Wells since 2001 on Friday, beating Monica Niculescu in straight sets to end her 14-year self-imposed exile from the California desert event.
World number one Williams earned the 7-5, 7-5 victory in two hours, three minutes in front of a crowd of about 14,000 on centre court of the Tennis Garden stadium.
The 19-time Grand Slam winner walked onto the court to a standing ovation from the crowd, a sharp contrast to her last Indian Wells appearance when as a 19-year-old she was booed after beating Kim Clijsters in the final.
Friday evening's match was one of the most anticipated of the two week hardcourt tournament because Williams finally decided to bury the hatchet after telling herself she would never play in Indian Wells again.
"I travelled the world in the last 14 years," Williams said. "I won 18 slams and I had some great memories around the world. There was just that one memory.
"I thought that if I could just put it aside and create some new memories." Williams won the Indian Wells crown in 1999 at age 17 and again two years later when she rallied to beat Clijsters in the final 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 after a controversial semi-final walkover when her sister Venus pulled out.
Romania's Niculescu came out onto the court first Friday followed a few minutes later by Williams who received a warm reception from the crowd as she emerged from the tunnel.
One fan yelled "We love you Serena" which was followed by more clapping and cheering.
Several members of Williams' family were in also in attendance including her mother Oracene.
Ends her boycott
Williams announced last month she was finally ending her boycott of the Indian Wells tournament, saying she had to let go of the past and move forward with her tennis career.
She was booed during the 2001 final by fans who accused her and her sister Venus of rigging a match. Williams responded later by claiming that she and her family members at the 2001 match were subjected to racial slurs.
She hasn't played a lot this season and it showed Friday as Niculescu made her work for the victory.
"I felt excited to be out there, almost overwhelmed," she said. "I wasn't able to get off to as fast a start as I wanted to in those first few games.
"It felt so good. I just wanted to be back out there. It feels great walking out here and everyone wishing me well." She got off to a slow start against Niculescu as the long layoff and nerves seem to get the best of her at the beginning of the first set.
Niculescu jumped out to a 2-0 lead, breaking Williams in the opening game by mixing up her groundstrokes and taking advantage of some unforced errors in the first career meeting between the two.
Williams won the next three games to go up 3-2 before Niculescu broke Williams for the second time en route to a 5-3 lead.
Williams then started to get more consistency out of her serves and groundstrokes, taking the final four games to win the set.
The second set was similar to the first with several momentum changes. Williams eventually took charge of the match late in the set as she finished with a total of 12 aces and won 73 per cent of her first-serve points in the match. Williams also finished with 48 unforced errors to 29 for Niculescu.
"I never played anyone like her before," Williams said. "I struggled to find my rhythm. She really made me work really hard today. It was a really, really tough match."