PARIS — Eventually, this looked a little bit like one of those Serena Williams comebacks of old, filled with top-notch strokes and full-throated screams of “Come on!”
For the first half-hour in the French Open’s second round Wednesday, the 23-time Grand Slam champion generally played the way you would expect from someone competing at her first Grand Slam tournament in 16 months — and first since she gave birth to a daughter last September.
And then, suddenly, Williams was back. Animated. Determined. Dominant, even. Erasing a deficit of a set and a break, Williams recalibrated her shots and beat 17th-seeded Ashleigh Barty of Australia 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 in a match that ended shortly before dusk.
“I lost the first set, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to try harder. I’ve got to just try harder.’ And Serena came out,” Williams told the crowd, leaning forward and breaking into laughter.
“Every day is a great day for me,” said Williams, who is also entered in doubles, with her older sister, Venus. “I’m going to be here, fighting my heart out. It’s such a great feeling.”
Williams had all sorts of trouble in the opening set, compiling 12 unforced errors.
By the time the second set was merely one game old, she had been broken twice in the match, each time at love, a rather surprising development for the owner of one of her sport’s most dangerous serves.
But then she started letting herself be heard, yelling and pumping her fist after pretty much every point that went her way. It woke up Williams’ game. Might have startled Barty, too. As big a hitter as Barty is in her own right, she is hardly in Williams’ class — who is? — and never has been past the third round at a major tournament.
Exhorting herself and celebrating key moments along the path back, Williams grabbed four consecutive games over a span of less than 15 minutes to lead 4-1 in the second set, which soon enough would be hers. She gained control of the third almost immediately, breaking to go ahead 2-1, then holding for 3-1.
When Williams served out the victory with a backhand winner down the line, she raised both arms overhead and held up her left fist as she approached the net to meet Barty. In the stands, Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, shook his fist.
After statistics that were so negatively lopsided in that initial set, in which she managed to produce only three winners, Williams straightened things out, to the tune of 25 winners the rest of the way.
Not bad for someone who hasn’t played in one of tennis’ four most important events since January 2017, when she won the Australian Open while pregnant.
Williams is ranked only 451st this week, because of her extended absence from the tour. She had played only four matches — going 2-2 — all season until this week.
Next for Williams is a third-round match against 11th-seeded Julia Goerges of Germany.
Get through that, and Williams would face either five-time major champion Maria Sharapova or 2016 U.S. Open runner-up Karolina Pliskova. Williams beat Pliskova’s twin sister, Kristyna, in the first round in Paris.
There were, to be sure, plenty of other big names in action Wednesday, including victories for Sharapova, No. 1-ranked Simona Halep and 10-time men’s champion Rafael Nadal.
But the 2018 French Open is, first and foremost, about Williams and her return to a Grand Slam stage.
She is assured of taking at least one more bow in the singles draw.