MELBOURNE, Australia — Serena Williams dressed for work on Tuesday as though she were intent on reminding people who she was before she became a wife and mother.
The last time Williams graced Rod Laver Arena, in 2017, she dispatched her older sister Venus in the Australian Open women’s final while in the early stages of her pregnancy. She was unable to defend her title last year because she wasn’t ready to return to the tour after a harrowing medical ordeal during and after childbirth.
In her return, 717 days later, Williams warmed up for her first-round match against Tatjana Maria wearing a short black trench coat. Once she got back to her chair, she peeled off the coat to reveal a muscle-hugging, bright green shorts-and-tank-top set that called to mind the black outfit that Williams wore 17 years ago in a first-round match at the United States Open.
It was a bold fashion statement for the 37-year-old Williams, resurrecting the “Serena-tard,” as she called it, which she first made famous in 2002 when she had one of her most sublime seasons, with victories in the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open, and a 56-5 match record.
Williams’s 6-0, 6-2 victory against Maria, her friend and fellow mother, felt like it took place in 2002. She breezed through the opening set in 18 minutes and won 54 points to Maria’s 24. Williams, the No. 16 seed, produced 22 winners.
“I knew that I’ve been working really, really hard in the off-season to be incredibly fit,” said Williams, who can equal Margaret Court’s record 24 Grand Slam singles titles with a victory here.
Maria said she hopes that Williams succeeds. “I have a lot of respect for her for what she’s done in the sport,” she said. “Maybe I was a little bit overwhelmed.”
Maria and Williams live near each other in Florida and occasionally get together for barbecues, Maria said, but she did not feel comfortable the Australian Open’s main showcourt, which is like a second home to Williams, a seven-time champion. “At the beginning, I didn’t find my rhythm,” Maria said.
Williams eschewed interviews and kept a low profile in the lead-up to this tournament, her first since her unsettling defeat in the United States Open final last fall, where her outburst toward the chair umpire led to her being penalized a game and fined $17,000. While Williams and Maria warmed up before the match, the D.J. played snippets of songs that included Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation.” If it was an attempt to get a rise out of Williams, she didn’t engage.
She spoke afterward about her dual focus — on tennis when she’s on the court and on her 16-month-old daughter, Alexis Olympia, when she’s not.
“Spending a lot of time with my daughter is a priority for me,” Williams said. “As a working mom I feel guilty. I understand that’s normal. These are years I’ll never get back.”
Williams can’t get the time back that she took off from tennis after having a child. The best she can do is win the Australian Open title that she couldn’t defend last year, and to that end, she got off to a fast start.