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Serena Williams: Five things to watch in her return to competitive tennis

The BNP Paribas Open is her first serious singles match since winning the 2017 Australian Open

Serena is back.

Serena Williams made her return “official” on a Wednesday Instagram post where she announced, “I will start playing tennis again professionally for the first time since giving birth to my daughter.”

But Thursday’s return at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, the best-attended tennis tournament in the world outside of the Grand Slams, was announced in January, so the chance to see Williams in action in her first singles match since winning the 2017 Australian Open isn’t a surprise.

Williams has history at Indian Wells. She had a memorable moment there in 1999 when she beat Steffi Graf for the first significant win of her career. And she experienced ”one of the darkest moments of my career” there in 2001 when venom directed at the Williams family led to locker room tears and a boycott that ended with her return in 2015.

What should we expect from Williams, who became a mother in September? Here are five things to watch:

her lateral movement

The United States had already clinched the Fed Cup when Williams took the court in doubles play with her older sister, Venus, nearly a month ago in Asheville, North Carolina. So in a non-pressure match, lateral movement from Williams in the two-set loss for the Americans wasn’t really necessary.

It’s going to be a process, as Williams is still carrying some extra baby weight. Her side-to-side movement is an area that Williams has been working on since playing that Fed Cup event in early February, and she’s clearly having fun doing it.

her stamina

This past Monday, Williams played in the Tie Break Tens competition in New York, a single-elimination exhibition where players face off in a 10-point tiebreaker.

Quick and easy. A perfect competition for someone like Williams, who hadn’t played in over a year.

What did we learn on Monday?

That, in a short match, she can beat an opponent, former Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli, who hasn’t played a competitive, sanctioned tennis match since her 2014 retirement. Bartoli, who had experienced a dramatic weight loss when pictures of her surfaced in 2016, is attempting a return to competitive tennis. But she appeared far out of match shape against Williams.

We also learned that, in a short match, Williams can be competitive with the No. 33 player in the world. Williams lost to Shuai Zhang, 13-11, in the Tie Break Tens semifinals.

Where she stands among the top players

Williams enters her first match in the BNP Paribas Open as an unseeded wild card, so she doesn’t get a first-round bye like some of the other top draws such as top seed Simona Halep, Sloane Stephens and Venus.

Her opponent, Zarina Diyas, is ranked 53rd in the world and lost in the quarterfinals of the recent Dubai Tennis Championships.

Williams has won both previous meetings between the two. Diyas has won just one WTA title, the 2017 Japan Women’s Open, since turning pro in 2009 and had her best singles ranking in 2015 when she was No. 31. She has five career wins over players ranked in the top 25 and has never beaten a top-10 opponent.

You’d think this is a perfect opponent for Williams. But not only is Williams unseeded, her long absence has her unranked.

Considering that the only singles match Williams has played over the past 14 months is an exhibition in December in which she was beaten by Jelena Ostapenko, the match against Diyas will be challenging. It will also give us a true gauge of where she stands in her comeback.

her inner drive

One thing about Williams in her prime: You couldn’t walk away from any of her matches, no matter how dire the circumstances she faced.

Remember the 2010 Australian Open quarterfinals, when Williams dropped the first set to Victoria Azarenka and appeared completely spent as she fell behind 0-4 in the second set? Williams staged a furious rally to win the match, and eventually the tournament.

Or how about the 2003 Australian Open semifinals, when Williams fell behind 1-5 in the third set and faced two match points before rallying to win the next six games and take the match against Kim Clijsters? Williams took that Australian Open title as well, beating her sister to win her fourth straight Grand Slam title.

Throughout her career, Williams has demonstrated the ability to dig deep. She’ll have to do that at Indian Wells to avoid a first-round exit.

HEr focus

It’s one thing to be a single woman while you’re chasing the number 25 — the number of Grand Slam singles titles that would give Williams a piece of tennis history (she has 23).

It’s even more of a challenge to chase that record with a new husband, and just six months after the birth of a daughter.

Williams loves marriage (it’s hard not to when you get to drive by four billboards paid for by your spouse professing his love to you).

And Williams loves being a mother, devoting a large share of her time to the beautiful Alexis Olympia Ohanian.

The mission for Williams is to be a doting mother and focus enough energy to return to the top of the tennis rankings. It won’t be easy, with even her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, saying that returning to the tour will be her “greatest challenge.”

Williams agreed in an interview with the BBC earlier this week, saying that “there’s been so many days, even still, that I’m like, ‘How am I going to keep going?’ ”

As she pursues No. 25, she’s confident her skill set will eventually match her determination. “I’m not at my best yet, but I’m getting there,” she told the BBC. “As long as I’m moving forward, even if it’s at a turtle’s pace, I’m OK with that.

“In two months I’ll be way better than I am now. You have to start somewhere.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.