Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka Set the Stage for a Comeback

The last time Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka played tennis in this high-rent stretch of desert, they faced each other in the final of the 2016 BNP Paribas Open. Azarenka won, 6-4, 6-4.

Since then, the landscape has changed dramatically for both of them. The particulars differ, but they are both mothers now, each trying to square that new responsibility and daily delight with a longstanding ambition to remain tennis champion.

Both are far from that at the moment. Azarenka, who was ranked No. 1 for a time in 2012 and 2013, has played just two tournaments in the past 21 months because of her pregnancy and a custody dispute, and is now No. 204. Williams, a longtime fixture at No. 1, took more than a year off for her own maternity leave and has no official ranking.

But both women still seek more competition, and more powerful big-match emotions.

“It was never a question for me,” said Williams, 36. “The minute I realized that I was going to take some time off, I just wanted to stay fit and stay ready the best I could.

“It just wasn’t my time to retire yet, even though it would have been a great way to retire. I just felt like my story wasn’t over.”

Thursday night, in the main stadium at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, Williams and Azarenka took turns resuming their remarkable tennis tales. And both emerged victorious in first-round, straight-set matches that were not quite that straightforward.

Williams went first, defeating Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan 7-5, 6-3. Azarenka then beat Heather Watson of Britain 6-4, 6-2 in a match that finished close to midnight.

“It was a little bit nerve-racking because I felt there was quite a bit of expectation,” said Azarenka, 28. “ Watching Serena, I thought she played really well, and seeing her fight out there, that’s all I wanted to do. My focus was just to be out there and enjoy myself and not put too much pressure.”

That is easier said than managed, of course, and there were plenty of gesticulations, two-toned grunts and withering glances as Azarenka struggled to close out the quick and erratic Watson in both sets.

Still, for someone who had not played a tour match since Wimbledon in July, there was much to feel sanguine about.

“A week ago, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be here today, and I won my first match in however long, so I’ll take it,” Azarenka said.

Williams was also doing her best to think of the big picture, as she did when she returned to competitive tennis last month as part of the United States Fed Cup team. But she played only doubles, and lost an essentially meaningless match after the American team had already clinched the first-round victory over the Netherlands.

“I’m not where I want to be, but I’m getting there and that’s one thing I realize: I’m not going to be there today or next week or tomorrow,” Williams said. “But I will eventually get there, and I do have my goals.”

“Every day is going to be a challenge for me,” she added, “but I know I’ll overcome it, and I’m ready to overcome it.”

Next up in the second round on Saturday: No. 29 seed Kiki Bertens for Williams; No. 13 seed Sloane Stephens for Azarenka.

Though far from her best on Thursday, Williams gave big hints that the traditional pillars of her game remain intact.

During her forced layoff, Azarenka dropped a significant amount of weight, altered her service motion and split with her coach, Michael Joyce. She has since hired Slava Konikov, a former men’s tennis coach at Sacramento State University who was one of her childhood coaches in Belarus.

She said that she did not see the missed tournaments as “lost time.”

“I’m still 28 years old,” she said. “And recently there are No. 1s over 30, so I’m O.K. with that. I’m still young.”

Williams, who was No. 1 at 35, and Roger Federer, who is back at No. 1 on the men’s tour at 36, have indeed shifted the thinking on career timelines.

Williams and Azarenka played each other in some of the best women’s matches of the 2010’s. That rivalry has changed somewhat, as they have become friends with much in common.

“We have another connection which is a lot bigger than tennis I think right now,” Azarenka said. “But I think we both can easily say we can’t wait to play against each other on some big stages.”

On Thursday, they had to settle for sharing a stage in the California desert. But after all they have been through, it was a promising place to start.