Serena Williams leaned against a wall in the bowels of SEFCU Arena, sweat pouring off her muscular shoulders and a satisfied look on her face after a very long day.
"It's good to be back. I love playing. I really enjoyed myself out there," Williams said Tuesday night after beating Martina Hingis 5-3 in World Team Tennis. "It was a really long day, but at last I arrived."
Williams, who sat out nearly a year with an assortment of health problems before returning to play the Eastbourne International prior to Wimbledon, continued her comeback by also playing mixed doubles and women's doubles. Her team, the Washington Kastles, edged the New York Sportimes 21-20.
A six-hour travel delay didn't curb Williams' enthusiasm. After arriving just in time for the start of play and getting virtually no practice or warm-up, she and partner Leander Paes fought hard before losing mixed doubles in a tiebreaker against Hingis and Travis Parrott.
"They had mixed first. I kind of wanted to play," Williams said.
Teammate Rennae Stubbs had been ready to play mixed doubles in Williams' place, but Williams insisted, to the delight of the crowd of 2,215, who gave her a nice ovation.
After struggling at the outset, Williams ripped a hard cross-court winner, then elicited a bow from Paes after two pretty volleys at the net as the crowd roared its approval.
But after Williams nailed a hard serve that skipped past Hingis and helped force a tiebreaker, Hingis hit a winner past Williams to give the Sportimes a 5-1 victory and the set.
If Williams had chosen not to play the first set, it would have been understandable. She was delayed for several hours on her trip from. She departed Tampa at 8:30 a.m., but her connecting flight in Charlotte was canceled because of mechanical problems.
Williams then joined team owner Mark Ein in Washington, D.C., but their flight in a private plane was delayed there by weather and didn't take off until 6:16 p.m., more than four hours after she was supposed to arrive in Albany.
"I've always appreciated the game. I don't know if anyone could appreciate it more," said Williams, who teamed with Stubbs to win the women's doubles, besting Hingis and Katie O'Brien 5-2, with Williams serving a love game to put the Kastles up 4-1.
Williams endured 352 days of doubt between Grand Slam appearances, her life filled with health problems and hospitalizations, doubts and depression. Since her fourth singles championship at Wimbledon last year, Williams suffered cuts from glass on both feet, underwent two operations on her right foot, had blood clots in her lungs, and another surgery to remove a pool of blood under her skin.
It was no wonder she cried when she finally returned and won her opening match at Wimbledon last month. She eventually lost in straight sets to Marion Bartoli in the fourth round.
"Obviously, (life's) changed a lot," Williams said. "Having a near-death experience is no fun. I've just always got to keep that in mind when I'm hard on myself as to why I don't think I'm doing better. Once I can get that, I'll just keep going."
Williams was given the go-ahead from her doctor just over three months ago and only began practicing at full speed in late May. She played her first match anywhere since July of last year at a grass-court tournament in Eastbourne in early June.
Until a WTT match two weeks ago in Washington, D.C., Williams hadn't played a sanctioned match on U.S. soil since she lost to Kim Clijsters in the 2009 U.S. Open semifinals. She helped lead Washington to a 25-10 win over the Boston Lobsters on July 7.
Williams said she expects to play in upcoming WTA tournaments at Stanford, Toronto and Cincinnati before the U.S. Open. The year's final grand slam is not yet on her radar.
"Yeah. I'm not thinking about that," she said. "I'm just thinking about my next tournament, improving. I need to do a lot of improving.
"I love playing Martina. She's such a good player, and more than anything, she's a great practice for me for these tournaments that I have got coming up. It was great. I was a little off. I made a lot of errors, but came through. I'm just having a lot of fun.
"I just look at it as, why am I not on top right now?"
Williams beat Hingis in the 1999 U.S. Open final for her first grand slam title. Williams ended this one-set contest with a pretty backhand winner that nearly hit the net.
"I think we just played really well. It was a good match for both sides," Hingis said.