Rusty Serena battles past Pironkova at Eastbourne
Serena Williams made a winning return after almost a year out when she beat Bulgaria’s Tsvetana Pironkova at the Eastbourne International on Tuesday.
The 29-year-old American, sidelined by injury and health problems since winning last year’s Wimbledon title, looked nervy and sluggish initially before settling down to win 1-6 6-3 6-4 in the first round.
It was far from pretty but after saying on Monday she was on her “death bed” earlier this year, the 13-times grand slam champion would have been encouraged to beat an opponent who reached last year’s Wimbledon semi-finals.
In a quirk of the draw wildcard Williams next faces top seed Vera Zvonareva, the Russian she beat in last year’s Wimbledon final just days before gashing her foot on broken glass in a Munich restaurant.
That injury eventually led to her suffering life-threatening blood clots in her lungs.
“It wasn’t an easy match but I think more than anything I wanted to win and I think mentally I was there,” Williams told reporters on Tuesday.
“I could have done a lot of things better but that’s okay. I definitely had fun.”
Dressed in pink and with purple streaks in her hair, Williams strode on to a sunny centre court with little ceremony and took an age to unwrap her racket from its plastic cover before gingerly taking the first steps on the most challenging comeback of her career.
With barely 20 minutes on the clock, however, she was 5-0 down in front of a capacity crowd and looking lost.
Slapping forehands into the net and looking leaden-footed the former world number one, now ranked 25, cursed herself and cracked a racket frame in annoyance.
There was even a slow handclap as she took ages to replace the racket, hardly the welcome back she would have envisaged.
Gradually her game began to click as she held serve at the start of the second set and forged a break ahead on her way to levelling the match with some thumping winners.
Williams let out a loud “c’mon!” and clenched her fist as she broke again at the start of the decider with some forceful tennis and confident forays to the net.
Watched by sister Venus, who made a successful return from a five-month injury break on Monday, Williams was yelling in frustration as she handed the break back with a netted backhand.
Another piercing screech from the American accompanied the end of the next game as Pironkova looped a hurried forehand out.
Serving for the match at 5-4, Williams cracked her seventh ace of the match but was sent sprawling to the turf after a superb baseline exchange to slip 15-30 behind.
She was then warned for slow play, received another slow handclap from the crowd, but wrapped up victory with an unreturnable backhand before raising her fist in salute.
Zvonareva saw off Britain’s Heather Watson 6-3 6-3 while French Open champion Li Na of China beat Tamira Paszek of Austria 7-5 6-4.
Former world number one Ana Ivanovic of Serbia recorded a 6-4 6-3 victory over Germany’s Julia Goerges to set up a second-round tussle with Venus Williams.