Serena Williams made a return to competition yesterday fitting of her reputation as the game's ultimate comeback queen. Nearly a year after playing her last match and just three months after coming off what she had described as her "death bed", Williams lost the first five games to Bulgaria's Tsvetana Pironkova in the Aegon International at Eastbourne before recovering to complete a 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory.
The former world No 1 was playing her first match since winning Wimbledon last year, having recovered from two foot operations and a stay in hospital in March, when she had a haematoma removed from her stomach after a blood clot had travelled from a leg to her lungs. It was a patchy performance yesterday, but a major achievement in the circumstances. Pironkova, the world No 34, is a good performer on grass, having beaten Williams' sister, Venus, to reach the semi-finals at Wimbledon last year.
Williams admitted that she had been nervous. "It wasn't an easy match, but I think more than anything I wanted to win, and I think mentally I was there," she said. "I could have done a lot of things better, but that's OK. I think that's expected. Going forward I will continue to try to do the things that I need to do."
She added: "I definitely think that I had fun. It's always good to have fun, especially after everything I've been through. It's all fun to me now. This is really all a bonus."
Playing at Devonshire Park for the first time since 1998, Williams had looked sluggish and badly out of touch in the opening stages. Angry and frustrated, the 13-times Grand Slam champion smashed a racket, after which the crowd gave her a slow handclap as she took her time sorting out a replacement.
Williams (left), who has made successful comebacks after lengthy absences in the past, picked her game up from the start of the second set, although the effects of 11 months away from the game was evident in some of her erratic play. In the final game she slipped on the turf after a testing baseline exchange but afterwards reported no damage, not even of the cosmetic variety.
"It's definitely not cool on my nails if I fall, because I can potentially break one, and that makes me really upset," Williams said. "I have three weeks to get through without breaking a nail. It's definitely not good for me to fall at all."
The next round will see a rematch of last year's Wimbledon final as Williams takes on Russia's Vera Zvonareva, who beat Heather Watson, the British No 2, 6-3, 6-3. Zvonareva, the world No 3, was the highest ranked opponent that the 19-year-old from Guernsey has ever faced.
Elena Baltacha, the British No 1, who is back up to No 61 in the world rankings after her victory in Nottingham at the weekend, overpowered Aravane Rezai 6-2, 6-1. Baltacha now plays Victoria Azarenka, the world No 5.
In the men's tournament, two home players went out in the first round. Alex Slabinsky was beaten 7-5, 6-3 by South Africa's Kevin Anderson, while Dan Cox went down 6-1, 7-5 to the American qualifier Donald Young.