An error-prone Serena Williams beat Monica Niculescu 7-5, 7-5 in her first match at Indian Wells in 14 years Friday night, receiving a warm welcome from the fans in sharp contrast to the booing that drove her away as a teenager.
Williams rallied from a 5-3 deficit in the first set and recovered after blowing three leads in the second set, winning on her fourth match point in her first tournament since earning her 19th Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in January.
Williams had 48 unforced errors and 12 aces in a wildly inconsistent performance. She closed out the 2-hour match when Niculescu netted a backhand volley. After a quick handshake, Williams waved to the crowd, but there was none of the jumping and pirouetting that often marks her victories.
The world's top-ranked women's player had stayed away from the BNP Paribas Open since winning the 2001 title as a 19-year-old, getting booed by the fans for what happened a day earlier, when she was to play Venus in a semifinal and Venus withdrew because of injury 20 minutes before the start.