Former world number one Serena Williams, who is looking to return to the top of her sport after taking a break due to her pregnancy, has not played a competitive match since she won the Australian Open title past year for her Open-era record 23rd grand slam.
The 38-year-old, who enjoyed a renaissance year in 2017 when she reached two Grand Slam finals, appeared to be showing her age as she exhausted towards the end of the second set even as her advantage in skill and raw power remained evident.
The tie opens with two singles rubbers on Saturday followed by reverse singles on Sunday, with doubles as the fifth rubber if required.
"There's been a lot of ups and downs in the practice", Williams told reporters on Friday.
The United States play the Netherlands in North Carolina on Sunday.
Williams was beaten in straight sets and appeared a little slow on her feet, even as she played some fine shots. "The thing about Serena is she's never going to come back unless she feels she's where she wants to be tennis-wise, physically and mentally". I was a bit nervous.
"It actually is a really flawless opportunity to try to come back", Williams said. You need to have that in everyday results, and then you need to have it within your game when you play Serena.
They were level at 2-2 before Venus eventually began to pull away.
After racing through the opening set, Williams was made to work in the second where the first five games all ended in service breaks.
"She's been out becoming a new mom, and she's looking to get back into playing", USA captain Kathy Rinaldi said earlier this week. "On paper I looked like I should win the match but it was a battle and I'm glad the United States of America won the battle. Sometimes it looked like they were about to go out, but they landed in so I was lucky". I think that created some opportunities in the second set, too. "It's just great to play the game that I love".
For now, she appears to be easing her way in and was not named as the United States' first or second singles player in a powerful U.S. team that includes elder sister Venus, world number 17 CoCo Vandeweghe and world number 62 Lauren Davis.
After holding serve in the second game of the match, Rus wouldn't win her serve again until she already had lost the first set and was down a break in the second.
The final scoreline was far closer than the players' rankings, 17 and 108 respectively, had suggested it should be.
Elise Mertens, an Australian Open semi-finalist last month, gave Belgium the lead with a 6-2 6-1 victory over Pauline Parmentier but Kristina Mladenovic beat Kirsten Flipkens 6-2 6-4.
She received a big ovation during team introductions and sat on court with her teammates during Venus's match.
Williams' daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., was born September 1.
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