Serena Williams took the first steps towards claiming a title she has never yet managed to win during her illustrious career when she defeated Russia's Ekaterina Makarova 7-6 (8) 6-0 in the second round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Tuesday night.
But she needed to overcome a strong challenge against the recent Pattaya champion, saving two set points in the first set before taking charge in the second with her booming serves.
Top-seeded Williams, playing in Dubai courtesy of a wild card, has been sidelined with a back injury since losing to Ana Ivanovic in the fourth round of the Australian Open last month.
It took Williams the first set to adjust to the left-handed Makarova's ability to jam many of her shots into the top-ranked American's body.
"I felt a little rusty, but it was OK," Williams said. "Body is fine. I just had to get my feet moving, but it was OK."
The 24th-ranked Makarova broke Williams' serve in the first game of the match and was serving for the set at 5-4. That's when the Russian played an error-riddled game to allow Williams to even the score to 5-5.
Williams had one set point on Makarova's serve in the 12th game, but smacked a backhand return over the baseline.
In the tiebreaker, Makarova had two set points at 6-4 and 6-5, but couldn't take advantage of the opportunities.
Williams took the first set on her third set point in the tiebreaker when Makarova shipped a forehand long.
"I was really telling myself to stay positive, because I was making a lot of errors that I normally don't make, and my serve just wasn't popping the way it normally is," Williams said. "It definitely got better in the second set."
In the second set, the real Serena Williams showed up and raced to a 5-0 lead.
However, she had trouble serving out the final game of the match - facing three break points before winning on her second match point when Makarova made a forehand error.
"She never gives up, and in that last game she started playing even better," Williams said. "I knew that I wanted to close it out there, because she'd probably feel comfortable with holding serve and it would have been a longer match."
Williams now plays Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic or fifth-seeded Jelena Jankovic of Serbia in the quarter-finals.
Former world number one Ana Ivanovic saved a match point before overcoming sixth seed and recent Doha finalist Angelique Kerber 3-6 6-3 7-6, and 2013 Wimbledon finalist Sabine Lisicki fell in the opening round to 2011 Dubai champion Caroline Wozniacki, who won 2-6 6-3 6-3.
Former world number one Jelena Jankovic overcame qualifier Maryna Zanevska 6-4 6-3, but 2011 US Open winner Samantha Stosur was upset 1-6 6-1 6-4 by qualifier Annika Beck.
Qualifier Flavia Pennetta set up a second round clash with number two seed and 2012 Dubai champion Agnieszka Radwanska by beating Kaia Kanepi 7-5 6-4, and Kirsten Flipkens defeated Karolina Pliskova 6-1 7-5.
But Simona Halep, who on Sunday won in Doha to claim her seventh career title, was forced to retire with a right Achilles injury, handing a first round 6-1 1-1 victory to Alize Cornet.
“I have an inflammation at my Achilles. So when I jump with my serve and when I stop at the rallies, I feel the pain,” said Halep. “I wanted to try, because I like to try to fight for my chance, but here I couldn't. After one set I realised that it is dangerous to continue.”
Ivanovic earned the right to face Venus Williams in the second round, a repeat of their final in Auckland last month that was won by Ivanovic, but it was a tense affair.
The result could have gone either way as Ivanovic saved a match point at 6-5 in the tiebreak before closing out the match on her fourth match point.
“She's such a tough competitor, and she retrieves lots of balls. You just have to win points over and over again,” said Ivanovic. “After having the three match points, you know, I didn't feel like I did that much wrong. I hit pretty good shots to get in that position in the first place. Having then match point down, I was really happy to come back.”
Wozniacki (above) and Lisicki also fought out a high-quality contest, and Wozniacki was relieved to recover after conceding the opening set.
“I knew she was going to come out hot and just go for her shots, and I felt like I was just a step behind. I couldn't really do what I wanted from my backhand side, and I was playing a little too short,” said Wozniacki.
“In the second set I started serving really well, I was really pleased with my serves, and I got a lot of her returns back deep, and all of a sudden, you know, the game was different.”
The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships is owned and operated by Dubai Duty Free, and held under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
For further information about tickets, prices and the tournament visit www.dubaidutyfreetennischampionships.com or phone the call centre on +971 4 4172415.