Tearful Serena wobbles but regroups

According to its proprietor, the reigning champion's "butt is way softer than normal" this time round. But perhaps that is no bad thing, when you are flying by the seat of your pants.

Serena Williams had played so little tennis since her last appearance on Centre Court that she seemed to find her bearings yesterday as much through some ancestral memory of her environment, as any instinct within. There were moments, certainly, when she seemed to be groping towards oblivion before regrouping to beat Aravane Rezai 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 in 96 minutes. Afterwards she sank onto her chair and buried her face in her towel, and was still choking as she left the court. "I'm not a crier," she said later. "I think it was something in my eyes." Her smile made plain that nobody was supposed to believe that.

Since winning this tournament for a fourth time last year, her medical problems have been such that she would risk compounding them merely by attempting to lift her doctor's case-notes. A physique that fabulously combines brawn and grace suddenly admitted such terrifying vulnerabilities that at one stage she even feared for her life. Simply to be here is something of a miracle, never mind to have every intention of challenging.

Admittedly, that seemed a remote prospect when she spent nine minutes losing the first game of the match on her own serve. On the very first point, she missed a sitter on her forehand, and her first serves were proving so vague that she was presenting the second on a silver tray. At break point, with sadistic aptness, a shrill alarm bell began sounding through the precinct.

But the only person more shocked than Williams was Rezai herself, and she would soon throw away her advantage with a couple of ghastly, hurried service games. Williams, conversely, took no time at all to make a furious improvement – in her service, at least, if not in her overall mobility.

However abetted by the occasional rusty error from her opponent, Rezai played some lovely tennis in the second set. The 24-year-old has a sumptuous backhand, and a pretty handy player is trying to get out. The origins of her distraction, however, seem lamentably obvious. Earlier this year her controversial father, Arsalan, was reported to have been banished from the tour on account of a "serious safety matter". Her confidence proved too brittle, certainly, once Williams loosened the fetters in the final set – and broke once and for all after failing to put away a smash at 1-3 down. She did not win another point.

Williams did not pretend that she had been at her best, but she had only squeezed in two matches at Eastbourne after a 49-week absence. "It's just been a long, arduous road," Williams said. "This was probably the most emotional I've been after a win. The first round, I never get super excited. But it wasn't about winning the match. It was about being out there. I'm still overcoming every day. This isn't the end of the road. It's just the beginning."

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