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Friday, March 26, 2004
Nerves fail to shake Serena

By Cynthia Faulkner
ESPN.com

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- It happened just as she promised: Serena Williams shone brightly in her return on Friday. Not her play, mind you. Her outfit. In brilliant white with silver accents, Serena glowed.

Serena Williams
Serena Williams' first day back was as smooth as silk.

The tennis, while not spectacular, only lasted 42 minutes as she defeated Marta Marrero of Spain 6-1, 6-0 at the Nasdaq-100 Open. Suddenly her return turned into a fashion show.

With not much to say about the match itself, the group of tennis writers, eagerly watching her first match in almost eight months, began asking questions like "Is that a two-layered skirt?"

Indeed, it was.

Just as talked about as her infamous catsuit, this outfit -- designed by a team at Nike to accent her trim, fit figure -- featured a combination of Marilyn Monroe meets the Jetsons. Think Xena, Warrior Princess in a satin-lycra blend. The fitted top, accented by silver piping, merged with an 8-inch silver "corset" (minus laces) above a floaty, silk skirt, similar to that worn by figure skaters.

With the wind out of the east at 28 mph, she fluttered enough to have to stop before serving and adjust the skirt. In fact, it's amazing she didn't have more than 21 unforced errors in the match. How distracting to have one's skirt floating waist-high.

Instead of wearing a typical warmup jacket, Serena completed the outfit with fitted jacket the length of her tennis skirt with a cinched-and-flared, silver-embellished waist. And, of course, Nike's Air Max Breathe Free II, in matching silver and white.

But you have to love what she did with a Roger Federer-type headband. It spelled out SERENA.

In rhinestones.

Serena said she told the designers form over function was fine (oh, be still their little designing hearts).

"I said, 'Look, I'm really into looking really good on the court. I don't have to be very comfortable,' " Serena said. "If you guys want to change it up and use different fabrics that a lot of players don't want to wear because they're really into comfort and really into being able to perform, I am, too, definitely, but I don't have to be as comfortable as the next player."

Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe poses in New York on Sept. 1954, in the dress that helped cause her split with Joe DiMaggio less than a month later.

Ah, willing to suffer for your art. In the end, she insists she was quite comfortable. But the ensemble is not wash and wear. This tennis dress is dry clean only. It's actually a relief to be back to frivolous discussions about Serena Williams following a difficult end to 2003. After undergoing knee surgery, Serena was filming one of her television "gigs" (as she always refers to them) when the news came that her sister Yetunde Price had been shot and killed, leaving behind three children. Their already close family rallied around one another.

"We're all their for the kids, and we love the kids," Serena said. "They're all family, so I consider them my kids. I have three kids now."

And although she has never acknowledged a relationship with Keyshawn Johnson, though Johnson laughed tellingly at mention of it in Chris Tucker's ESPY patter some time after they were seen together at Wimbledon, Johnson has since decided to reconcile with his estranged wife.

But today, it was all smiles from Serena -- once she won, that is.

The former No. 1 player was a bit concerned about her first match.

"I was very nervous going out there," she said. "I think my dad was with Venus, practicing. So I was just waiting on my own. But I was a little nervous.

"But then I decided that I'm just gonna go out there and do the best I can."

Her best actually looked a lot like other first-round matches. A little rusty. A tad slower than usual. Streaky. Her fastest serve was 116 mph. She ended the first and second sets with aces.

The best indicator of her status might be how her second serve -- previously considered the best in women's tennis -- holds up. On Friday, she won the point on her second serve 55 percent of the time in the first set. In the second set, the number dipped down to 40 percent.

There were times when the old, healthy Serena could be seen as well as a new Serena who served and volleyed.

"Everybody's changing their game," Serena said.

While she said she feels fit, she can feel the absence of match play.

"I haven't been around this atmosphere in a long time. Just being around the whole facility and then going out there, people really cheering for me, yeah, so I've been away a while.

"But it felt good."

And looked interesting.

Cynthia Faulkner is the tennis editor for ESPN.com.