Serena Williams suggested that she may be moving closer to retirement, teasing that there is "light at the end of the tunnel" after winning her first match in 430 days.
The 23-time Grand Slam champion secured her first singles win since last year's French Open, surviving a hard-fought first-round encounter with Nuria Parrizas Diaz to take a 6-3 6-4 win in Toronto.
On a muggy, overcast day at the Canadian Open., Williams was made to work hard against the battling Spaniard, never quite finding her true best despite redolent glimpses of her power serve and forehand.
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It appeared that Parrizas Diaz might force a decider at several points in the second set, but a vital hold in what proved to be the penultimate game of the match ensured Williams' place in the second round.
Afterwards, Williams suggested that she was "getting closer to the light of freedom".
“I guess there’s just a light at the end of the tunnel,” Williams chuckled. “I don’t know, I’m getting closer to the light, so ....
"Lately that's been it for me. I can’t wait to get to that light."
“Freedom,” she said when asked what that light represented. “I love playing though, so it’s like amazing.
"But, you know, I can’t do this forever. So it’s just like sometimes you just want to try your best to enjoy the moments and do the best that you can.”
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The 23-time Grand Slam singles champion had lost her only singles match of the year so far, beaten by Harmony Tan at Wimbledon in late June, but she appeared to quickly shake off any rust.
Williams, playing on a hard court competitively for the first time since the 2021 Australian Open, began strongly with a confident hold, and broke her Spanish opponent at the first opportunity, but Parrizas Diaz struck back, working the angles well and drawing back on level terms.
The two shared a series of extended rallies, unable to force winners, before Williams broke again, using the depth of the court well to force Parrizas Diaz back and setting up a chance to serve for the set with a crisp backhand volley.
Roared on by a partisan North American crown, Williams eventually took the opportunity, surviving a break point to secure the fourth of her set points with an emphatic overhead.
But Williams' game never quite fully clicked on a sultry late summer's day, with the mobile Parrizas Diaz forcing the veteran to play long points and prevent her opponent building on the strength of her first serve.
The Spaniard has a reputation as a battler, fighting back from nearly being forced into premature retirement by a shoulder injury to reach the main singles draw at a major for the first time at the age of 30 at the US Open last year.
And she appeared at several points to be on the verge of what could have been a decisive break, letting four chances slip in a marathon eighth game of the second set eventually won by Williams after the ninth deuce.
It proved a costly missed opportunity. Williams moved to within a game of victory as she again cracked the Spaniard's serve.
To the delight of the crowd, the encounter was not further prolonged as Williams came through in straight sets, the second set eventually decided in more than 70 minutes of hard-hitting back-and-forth tennis.
"It wasn't cold, it was cloudy, it was sunny, it was windy, but it was good," Williams said afterwards of a day of uncertain weather.
"It's great to be back in Toronto. I didn't know if I would be able to play here again, this being one of my favourite stops on the tour. I was really happy to be able to come out here again. It was really fun and really cool."
There were moments of ominous ball-striking from the 40-year-old as she worked into her flow, but Belinda Bencic lurks in the second round and the American will have to improve.
Bencic faces Czech qualifier Terez Martincova for a place in the last-32.
Venus Williams was beaten 6-3 6-3 by Jil Teichmann in a match that started at 11.45pm due to the rain delays.
Teichmann will next face world No 2 Anett Kontaveit, who received a bye in the opening round.
Leylah Fernandez enjoyed a victorious homecoming as she beat Australian qualifier Storm Sanders 6-4 6-7(2) 6-3 in her first match since the French Open.
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