Serena Williams, Rusty but Rested, Returns From a 4-Month Break

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Half a world and four months removed from her last match, Serena Williams slowly but surely settled in as she faced her first test of the season.

After hitting several wrong notes, Williams tuned her game to orchestrate a 6-3, 6-4 victory over 69th-ranked Pauline Parmentier of France on Tuesday in the first round of the ASB Classic, a WTA tournament that serves as a warm-up for the Australian Open this month.

“I definitely felt that rust, but I felt like, mentally, I knew how to get it back and I knew how to get in there,” she said. “That felt really good.”

Williams, 35, was playing her first match since a loss to Karolina Pliskova in the United States Open semifinals in September, having skipped the tour’s fall circuit for a second consecutive year. She had played the most selective schedule of her career — only eight tournaments in 2016 — and her sporadic play had allowed Angelique Kerber to end Williams’s three-and-a-half year reign atop the world rankings. Williams is now ranked second.

Despite the costs, Williams said, the time away from her racket was necessary, restful and restorative.

“Last year, I didn’t play in the fall, but I worked probably more than I ever have — and it was too much, in fact,” she said, referring to late 2015. “This year, I didn’t play, and I actually took time off from everything. I really think it made a world of difference. I just feel a little bit more refreshed than I did last year. I just learned from that mistake. I was like, ‘Serena, you’re going to take some days off and just not do anything.’ I think that was the best thing I could have done.”

She added: “I just felt like I’ve been on the top for so long, so many years. After a while, you kind of need to take a step back and enjoy moments and then recharge — mentally, more than anything.”

When Williams began her off-season training in earnest, she did so with a determination that impressed her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou.

“You know how it is: You can wake up one day, and the motivation is not there anymore,” he said. “So she showed to herself and to everyone in the team that she was still motivated, which was very good news.”

Williams and Mouratoglou decided to focus on improving in specific areas — neither would disclose them — to keep her game from stagnating.

“I don’t want to come out here and have the same game,” Williams said. “I want to have some improvement.”

Mouratoglou, who described Williams as “incredibly complex” and “always changing” off the court, credited her with being able to evolve on the court amid the game’s shifts across her career.

“If you look at her game throughout the years, she’s adapted to so many different kinds of tennis, different players, and was able to win for such a long period because her game changed,” he said. “She does things that surprise me, even on the court sometimes. It’s great because otherwise, when you know the player perfectly and in every situation you know what’s going to happen, it can be boring. But with her, never.”

One recent change in Williams’s life that surprised some was the announcement of her engagement to Alexis Ohanian, a founder of Reddit. Mouratoglou said the positive developments in Williams’s personal life would only prove beneficial on the court.

“I think players need stability because everything is changing every day: countries, surface, opponents, conditions, everything,” he said. “It’s difficult, and when you have a lot of stability, you feel better. I’m happy for her because I feel that she’s happy. That’s what’s most important. And if she’s happy, there’s no reason why it wouldn’t positively affect her tennis.”

Williams said she hoped it would, too.

“It definitely should,” she said, laughing. “We’ll see how that plays out.”

Without playing, Williams drew attention with an impassioned social media post about police violence in September, and she was also the focus of an hourlong interview special on ESPN in December.

Mouratoglou said he relished the attention and the pressure that accompany working with a player of Williams’s caliber.

“Being with Serena, you cannot do better,” he said. “If it was easy, everyone would do it, but it’s a tough job.”

He then considered the alternative.

“It’s tough also to coach players who lose every week,” he said, laughing. “Maybe tougher — and that’s the case for most of them.”

For Williams, the expectation of excellence can also be a burden.

“The expectation is incredible, and there are very few people, if any in sport, who go with that on a daily, daily basis,” she said. “It’s something that I feel like I’m dealing with better, in particular in the past few months, and I hope to be able to deal with it better this year.”

Williams has often balked at questions about further records she might break — on top of her 22 Grand Slam singles titles, which have her tied with Steffi Graf for the most in the Open era — but she laughed ruefully in confirming that her lofty standards had not changed.

“Well, you know what a successful 2017 for me is,” she said. “Unfortunately, I have the highest of goals usually, so obviously that involves winning Grand Slams. And that’s all. That’s basically what I want to do.

“But you have to win tournaments like this, or do well in tournaments like this, in order to do well in Grand Slams,” she said of being in Auckland. “So these events really, really count.”

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Williams’s schedule last year included only the four Grand Slam events, the Olympics and three of the largest WTA events: the prominent American tournaments in Indian Wells, Calif., and Key Biscayne, Fla., and the Italian Open in Rome.

Her appearance this week in Auckland for a far-flung tournament on the lowest tier of the WTA Tour — an event she had never played in before — has surprised and delighted locals. As she walked on the court Tuesday, the tournament’s announcer exhorted fans to rise for the “royalty in the house,” and they obliged.

“You would never think in this point in my career that I would still go places I’ve never been,” Williams said.

With the opportunity to make further history in the sport this year, Williams may reach more uncharted territory soon.

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