Welcome to Sunshine Stories, where wtatennis.com will take a look back at some of the most memorable matches from the North American spring over the past five years. Continuing our countdown from the 2018 edition of the BNP Paribas Open is 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams's comeback tilt against Zarina Diyas in the first round.
HOW THEY GOT THERE: Anticipation was sky-high for the long-awaited return to action of Serena Williams as she embarked on arguably her most ambitious comeback yet. At the age of 36, the legendary champion was attempting to come back following maternity leave, six months after having daughter Olympia and 14 months since playing her last official match - a defeat of sister Venus in the 2017 Australian Open final to seal her 23rd Grand Slam title - and with it, the Open Era record for major trophies.
In 2020, mothers returning to professional tennis are, happily, no longer rare one-offs - in last month's Abierto GNP Seguros in Monterrey, they comprised nearly one-sixth of the entire main draw - but even now, few attempt it when closer to 40 than 30, nor with Williams's sky-high ambition of pursuing the all-time major tally. Moreover, the American had endured a difficult childbirth, revealing a month before Indian Wells that, following an emergency C-section, she had almost died after a slew of medical complications.
Williams's return, originally planned for the Australian swing in January, had already been delayed by three months, and she had set foot on court just twice since giving birth, losing 6-2, 3-6, [10-5] to Jelena Ostapenko in an Abu Dhabi exhibition at the end of December and, partnering Venus, falling 6-2, 6-3 to Lesley Pattinama Kerkhove and Demi Schuurs in a dead Fed Cup doubles rubber in February. The postponement and consequent question marks, though, had only heightened the suspense for a narrative that promised to be riveting.
Amidst the buzz, World No.53 Zarina Diyas was seeking to show that she was more than just Williams's foil. The Kazakh was writing a comeback story of her own, and one that also deserved applause. Having hit a career high of World No.31 in 2015, reaching the second week of Wimbledon twice, a wrist injury sidelined Diyas for eight months between June 2016 and February 2017. Her ranking would sink outside the Top 200, and when she returned it was initially at the lowest level of the ITF Pro Circuit.
But slowly, Diyas had got her groove back in 2017, with strong ITF performances leading up to the emotional reward of her maiden WTA title in Tokyo as a qualifier in September. Firmly ensconced in the Top 100 once more, the 24-year-old had started 2018 strongly with a quarterfinal showing in Shenzhen - though following that had reversed course slightly, suffering three-set losses to Sorana Cirstea in the first round of the Australian Open and Monica Niculescu in the second round of Taipei City before falling to Lesia Tsurenko in Dubai qualifying.
WHAT HAPPENED: Williams hit the ground running with her serve, one of the greatest weapons in the history of the women's game: she would capture 70% of her first serve points and 77% behind her second delivery for a series of impregnable holds, during which she did not face a break point. But Diyas was also serving well, as well as displaying her customary tenacity in the hope of sealing a famous scalp, and fended off the first five break points she faced as the first 10 games of the match went with serve.
Match report: Serena triumphs against Diyas in Indian Wells comeback
But in some ways, the Kazakh's game proved ideal as a first test for Williams. Diyas's counterpunching and ability to stick in rallies would test the champion's groundstrokes - as well as resulting in some excellent extended points - but the consistent rhythm she gave Williams also allowed the American to gradually play herself in. Shaking off her earlier missed opportunities, Williams finally broke for 6-5 with a backhand down the line too hot for Diyas to handle, then closed the opening act out on her third set point as her opponent found the net with a forehand.
If solid service holds had been the story of the first set, that narrative flipped in the second, which was a good deal edgier - particularly during its middle passage of play, which saw five consecutive breaks of serve. Three times Williams pummeled returns and overheads to capture the Diyas serve; twice, Diyas clung on to the match by breaking back immediately. But as in the first set, Williams's instinct for knowing exactly when to step her game up came through. Leading 4-3, sharper focus delivered a love hold that exorcised the struggles that had immediately preceded it - and Williams wasted no time to press home her advantage, breaking yet again for the match and sealing a 7-5, 6-3 victory as a last-ditch Diyas forehand went into the tramlines.
WHAT THEY SAID: Williams was sanguine about easing herself back into competition afterwards. "I surprised myself with some of the errors," she said. "But right now, for this particular tournament, I'm really just trying to take it easy and not put too much stress or pressure or expectation on myself. And this is really one of the few times when I’ve been able to do that.
Mindful of all that she had gone through to get to this point, she also played down her own immediate expectations: "I went in knowing I'm not going to be where I want to be in the first few matches," Williams pointed out. "It takes time to get back."
WHAT IT MEANT: For Diyas, her solid performance was a springboard for a career-best fourth-round run in Miami the following fortnight, including a defeat of Svetlana Kuznetsova. However, her season was set back again when the Kazakh suffered a knee injury in Nottingham, forcing her to miss her beloved grass swing - and 2019 saw her needing to mount another comeback from outside the Top 100.
Williams, meanwhile, was able to score a Top 30 win in her first tournament back when she defeated No.29 seed Kiki Bertens 7-6(5), 7-5 in the second round - but that was followed by two straight losses, 6-3, 6-4 to sister Venus to end her desert campaign and then 6-3, 6-2 to newly crowned Indian Wells champion Naomi Osaka in the first round of Miami.
Following that result, Williams would not play again for over two months, withdrawing from Madrid and Rome due to needing more time to be "100 per cent ready to compete". In May, her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, admitted that the former World No.1 "clearly came back too early", citing the complications surrounding Williams's childbirth as a factor. Williams would score a pair of quality wins on returning at Roland Garros, over Ashleigh Barty - champion the following year - and Julia Goerges, but it was at Wimbledon in July that her comeback hit its stride as she reached the first of four Grand Slam finals since returning from maternity leave. In light of her journey, that achievement in itself is astonishing - but Williams still remains hungry for a 24th major trophy.