INDIAN WELLS (California) • In the first singles tournament of her comeback, Serena Williams will pick up where she left off by facing her older sister Venus in the third round of the BNP Paribas Open.
In Serena's last tournament before maternity leave, she defeated Venus in the final of the 2017 Australian Open. Venus was one of the few who were aware that her sister was two months pregnant.
Serena then spent 14 months away from the game. But the sisters are back on tour together again, and both advanced by winning second-round matches on Saturday.
Venus, seeded eighth, went through first, defeating Romania's Sorana Cirstea, 6-3, 6-4, to record her first tour victory of the year.
Serena then beat No. 29 seed Kiki Bertens, 7-6 (7-5), 7-5, in a tight match full of high-velocity rallies and abrupt shifts in momentum.
"I'm just so happy to be out here," she said. "Everything is a bonus."
The sisters were supposed to clash in the 2001 semi-final here, but Venus withdrew only a few minutes before the match was to begin, citing tendinitis in her right knee.
There was conjecture that her withdrawal had been a family arrangement and Russia's Elena Dementieva said after her quarter-final loss to Venus that she believed the sisters' father and coach, Richard Williams, decided who would win their matches.
The family denied any such arrangement and Dementieva later insisted she had been joking. But, when Richard and Venus arrived at the stadium to watch Serena play the 2001 final against Kim Clijsters, they were booed by the crowd of nearly 16,000. Richard said he heard racial slurs directed at him.
After Serena defeated Clijsters, she did not return to Indian Wells until 2015, while Venus did not end her boycott until the following year.
The third-round match will be their earliest meeting in a tour event since their first duel as professionals, when Venus won, 7-6 (7-4), 6-1, in the second round of the 1998 Australian Open. Serena leads their head-to-head 17-11.
"She's had such a good year last year and playing fantastic tennis… I really abhor every time we play, but I do enjoy the battle when I'm out there. It's just afterwards I don't like it as much." Serena said.
"She's playing really well and just honing her game," said Venus, who watched the Diyas match from the stands. "When she's missing, it's not by much."
That was not always the case on Saturday against the Dutch 29th seed as Serena missed some serves by considerable margins and mistimed a few groundstrokes that landed far off the mark.
She hit just one ace and made 37 unforced errors to 32 for Bertens, whose average first-and second-serve speeds were superior to Serena's on Saturday.
"It definitely felt better than the first round, but I'm still a little rusty," she said. "I'm still making errors that I don't normally make."