INDIAN WELLS, California -- The match took two hours and three minutes in actual elapsed time. But considering the emotional turmoil it exacted on Serena Williams, her mother Oracene and her sister Isha, all of whom were in tears afterward, and a crowd that seemed to feel the anguish of every errant shot and the relief of her eventual victory, it seemed more like 14 years.
It was a long buildup to Williams' first trip back to Indian Wells since she left in 2001 amid accusations of racism, hurt feelings and eventual reconciliation. And it was a night as compelling as Monica Niculescu's unorthodox forehand, which, combined with Williams' emotions, conspired to make it a 7-5, 7-5 victory she seemed barely able to put in context afterward.
"I feel like I've already won this tournament," she said. "I don't feel like I have to actually hold the trophy at the end of this. I feel like I'm already holding up a trophy. I have never felt that way before. I feel like just being here is a huge win. Not only for me, but for so many people. It's a wonderful feeling."
Here's how it all looked from here:
The masses await
Or, well, a bunch of people, anyway. Luis Madrigal, 28, and his buddy Larry Merrill, 29, were among them, traveling from the Los Angeles area, having purchased two days of tickets to ensure they would not miss Serena's first match.
They came armed with a "Welcome Back Serena" sign in hopes of attracting her attention from the upper reaches of the stadium court, they said, and easing her nerves. They also got the inside scoop from Serena's coach and agent, they said, as to her arrival time, lining up in the 90-degree heat under the desert sun and behind a barrier at the West Gate of the complex with about a dozen other fans more than three hours before her match was to begin.
"I'm like a school girl," Luis said, aware of his near-giddiness. "I hope the crowd gives her a standing ovation and makes her cry. That would be so great."
"Say, 'Welcome Back, Serena,' a local cameraman instructed the crowd, and dutifully they responded. The only problem was that most said they were there for a glimpse of Roger Federer.
Practice, on the day of a match, is hardly supposed to raise a sweat, except that Serena was wearing a long-sleeved jacket. Dri-fit, of course. Dry heat, too.
Sheriff's deputies on bicycles pedaled through the grounds, and one guard was stationed by her practice court -- not the case at Federer's court nearby. Also not seen: any mention of Serena's warming up on the electronic board that tells fans where and when players are practicing.
While Rafael Nadal, who practiced on the same court before Serena, had to walk through a public area, as all the players did, Serena exited through a back way, jumped on a golf cart and traveled back to the players' locker room unseen by Luis, Larry or most anyone else.
With the Black Eyed Peas "I Got A Feeling" providing the soundtrack, Serena took the court to a respectful, minute-long standing ovation from a stadium court crowd only about half full at that point, acknowledging them with a single wave.
Wearing her cutout, "bright peach and turf orange" Nike tennis outfit, Williams didn't smile and did not look particularly moved one way or the other, though she said that was not the case.
"I was overwhelmed by it, and it was such a warm feeling," she said later. "It made me feel incredibly well."
Not so welcome back
In her previous match here, the 2001 final against Kim Clijsters, Serena dropped the first seven points. Friday night, she dropped five of the first six and looked thoroughly frustrated as Niculescu broke serve in the first game and then played with Williams' head.
Serena told the Tennis Channel that she spoke to her father, Richard, before the match, who told her, "You know how she plays." But she had never played Niculescu in singles, and, evidently, her doubles experience six years ago did not prepare her for a constant slice forehand roughly 30 miles per hour slower than Serena's.
"I know her game," Williams said. "I think everyone in the locker room knows her game. But, boy, she was interesting. I just never got the same ball, or I did get that forehand a few times, but it was low, high. I just wasn't able to get my rhythm today. I'm just glad to get through that match. It was definitely a super-tricky match for me."
Somebody help me
Neither her family box nor John McEnroe and Bill Gates, also sitting courtside, nor her continuing, sometimes very loud conversation with herself could help Serena as she went through three different rackets in the first five games.
"I think she's just real nervous," said Scott Stinnett, 49, of Pensacola, Florida, one of many fans who tried to rally Williams with cries of, "Come on, Serena."
"I don't think she's moving her feet well, and then there's that other girl's weird slingshot," he said. "And she's always been a slow starter."
Other possible reasons: It was Serena's first match back since Fed Cup play five weeks ago. Last weekend, she was seen practicing in Palm Beach Gardens with a heavy wrap on her knee.
Two years ago, when Kalli Minor of Compton, California, was 6 years old, she told her father, Terian, that she wanted to play tennis "like that brown girl who's so good." One week ago, her hero, Serena Williams, responded to Kalli's Instagram video of her playing tennis, writing, "You can be better than me."
On Friday night, after finding tickets on StubHub three days earlier for Serena's first match at Indian Wells in 14 years, Terian and Kalli brought the handmade sign they had recreated after the sign Richard Williams held up at Serena's first Grand Slam title, the 1999 US Open: "Straight outta Compton."
Someone in Serena's camp spotted the sign and sent up Beats wireless earbuds. "From Serena," the man said.
"I'm a whole bunch excited seeing her big, big serve," Kalli said. "It's really, really fast."
Said her dad: "She's going to be the next No. 1."
Some fans said they are rooting for Serena to win the tournament so that she can more easily erase the bad memories she had here and move on.
But there were still some lingering recollections.
"It never had anything to do with her; it was more the way her father acted," Peggy Falcaro, who was at the 2001 final, said of the fans' negative treatment. "And, OK, maybe she was mad at fans and maybe some deserved it, but was it fair to punish fans for 14 years?"
Williams said this week that she stayed an extra day in L.A. because she was too nervous to come to Indian Wells, so her overwhelming emotion afterward seemed to be relief that the first match was over.
"I haven't had a two-hour match in a long time," she said, adding: "I feel better. The weeks leading up to it, days leading up to it and, eventually, the hours, it was a little nerve-racking."
If this constituted closure, she was not going to make more out of it than it already is. Asked if coming back while she is still a dominant player was important to her, Williams made it clear this could not be orchestrated. Nor would she want it to be.
"I think, ultimately, it was important," she said. "[But] I didn't write the story this way. I did not plan to be dominant and playing well or No. 1, if you say, 15 years, 14 years later.
"I did not write this story for myself, so I think it was just an extra bonus and an extra treat that it turned out this way."