In the end, there was no smile when the nearly two-hour match was over. Just a look of relief, with arms raised triumphantly.
It had been 14 months since Serena Williams had recorded a singles win. But with the support of the crowd in her first-round match at the Canadian Open on Monday, the 40-year-old returned to the win column with a 6-3, 6-4 triumph over Nuria Parrizas-Diaz that was a much tougher battle than the score might indicate.
"It's great to be back in Toronto, I didn't know if I would be able to play here again," Williams said during her on-court interview after the win. "This being one of my favorite stops on tour, I was really happy to be here again."
As the interview then ended, she addressed the crowd directly. "Thank you everyone," she said emphatically. "I love you."
During most of Williams' career, a first-round win over a lucky loser ranked No. 57 in the world wouldn't have elicited such emotion from the 23-time major champion. But the victories have been harder to come by and the injuries tougher to rebound from -- and it's clear it just means more these days.
"I guess there's just a light at the end of the tunnel, I'm getting closer to the light, so lately that's been it for me, can't wait to get to that light," Williams told reporters after the match with a laugh, but insisting she wasn't joking. "I love playing though, it's amazing but I can't do this forever so sometimes you just want to try your best to enjoy the moments and do the best that you can."
The former world No. 1 was sidelined for nearly a year with a torn hamstring, sustained at Wimbledon in 2021, and rumors about her retirement grew louder with each tournament that passed. But such speculation was premature, yet again.
Williams made her eagerly awaited return to competition earlier this summer by playing doubles at Eastbourne with Ons Jabeur. The duo reached the semifinals before withdrawing due to a knee injury for Jabeur. Williams then returned to singles play at Wimbledon, where she lost in a first-round thriller to Harmony Tan, 7-5, 1-6, 7-6 (10-7). Williams had the Centre Court crowd firmly on her side, and momentum at times, but ultimately the rust prevailed over the flashes of brilliance and, despite a 3-1 edge in the decider and later a 4-0 lead in the tiebreak, Williams wasn't able to close out the match.
"I think if you're playing week in, week out, or even every three weeks, every four weeks, there's a little bit more match toughness," Williams said after the loss to Tan. "But with that being said, I felt like I played pretty OK on some of 'em, not all of 'em. Maybe some key ones I definitely could have played better. But, you know, you got to think if I were playing matches I wouldn't miss some of those points or this match."
On Monday, that match toughness appeared to be back. Currently unranked and needing a wild card for entry, Williams proved she still belonged on the sport's biggest stages. She fought for every point and refused to back down. She needed four set points to clinch the opener but she ultimately sealed it in signature style with an overhead smash.
Williams was tested even more in the second set, which lasted 76 minutes. Parrizas-Diaz found her form and at times it looked all but certain the match would be going the distance. But Williams took control and stopped her opponent's momentum in a wild eighth game of the set. Serving at 3-4, Williams saved four break points to eventually take the 18-minute, nine-deuce game -- and then convincingly won the next two games for the victory.
Williams, a three-time Canadian Open champion, will next play the winner of Tuesday's Belinda Bencic-Tereza Martincova match and could potentially face Naomi Osaka in the third round. Osaka owns a 3-1 record in their rivalry, including a victory in the 2018 US Open final, but Williams won their lone meeting in Toronto in the quarterfinals in 2019. Williams went on to reach the final that year in Canada, as well as at the US Open weeks later.
Will history repeat itself this year? It's of course impossible to predict how she'll fare the rest of this week and during the hardcourt season, but a victory over a tough opponent is a promising start and should give her a much-needed confidence boost. Williams was broken just once in the Monday match, saved seven of eight break points on the day, and notched seven aces -- proving her legendary serve remains a valuable weapon. She also managed to handle changing weather conditions, as well as an ever-adjusting foe across the net, and seemed to do so with relative ease.
While it may feel like an eternity ago, Williams reached the semifinals at the Australian Open, her last hardcourt major, in 2021 and remains hungry to make one final push for Grand Slam title No. 24. She is slated to play in next week's Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, as well as the US Open later this month.
But moments after the match, Williams just seemed to be taking it one day, and match, at a time.
"It's just one win, you know," Williams said. "It takes a lot. But I was happy to have a win, it's been a very long time. I forgot what it felt like."