The Williams sisters are back. Not back to their best just yet but maybe not that very far away from it. Anyone who made the mistake of writing off Serena at the 2007 Australian Open when, out of condition and overweight, she lumbered through early rounds before springing to life will be loathe to repeat the mistake.
Perhaps the bookies were right after all, but could she really go from her deathbed to a Wimbledon title in the space of three months? Don't bet against her doing so.
It would interesting to know, though, what her odds were after losing the first set of her opening match against Tsvetana Pironkova, of Bulgaria, 6-1 in the Aegon International here yesterday. She should be grateful that tennis is not refereed like boxing otherwise Alison Lang, the umpire, might have been tempted to call a halt to proceedings there and then to save the American from further punishment.
In that opening set – which she will want to forget very quickly – she was slow, awkward and, dare one say, almost timid. Her first serve was practically unrecognisable. Since when did Serena regularly toss them in at speeds in double figures? That was partly due to the fact that she was obliged to go for accuracy at the expense of power after a few mistakes.
It was her movement that was giving most cause for concern then. At her best, she is an intimidating figure even when she is not taking a mighty swipe at the ball. She seemed to be holding back, perhaps, in fear of a fall. The pulmonary embolism she suffered is hopefully a thing of the past but a heavy fall would have been the last thing she needed. Fortunately for her the Centre Court at Devonshire Park was nothing like as slippery as it had been the day before for her sister Venus on her winning comeback from injury.
While accepting that her movement wasn't good - "I was really focused just trying to get my feet to move, which was a task on itself" – typically, she offered an alternative reason for not wanting to fall down. "Look, I always try not to fall down," she explained. "It's definitely not cool on my nails if I fall, because I can potentially break one, and that makes me really upset."
The crowd were ready to welcome back the old Serena and indeed it seemed just like that as she kept her opponent waiting at the net for a couple of minutes while she removed her tracksuit bottom to reveal a dark pink little number. It was, she said, her French Open dress, which she said, was inspired by "God, I can't remember the French lady. Some famous actress I can't remember".
Brigitte Bardot would probably have joined in the warm applause that greeted her as she set foot in a competitive environment for the first time in 12 months; no one is ever enthusiastically applauded at Devonshire Park. But as game after game went against her the mood of the crowd became steadily more morose. "Well, she has been away a long time," one spectator nearby whispered by way of excuse and it was probably the general consensus. They even slow hand-clapped when she went for a change of racket at 4-0 down in the first set.
What was encouraging for the real Serena fans was her shape. Compared to the Serena of '07 she was positively slimline. Cruelly teased about her weight then, she memorably answered her critics with the comment: "I know I have a big fat butt and big fat boobs and there's nothing I can do about it. Generally guys like butts and boobs, so it's not an issue for me."
Her first ace, which was all of 94 mph (she hits 125 mph plus at most Wimbledons) drew a decent round of applause and an even bigger one after 24 minutes when the zero against her name on the scoreboard was finally changed. Her forehand remained a bit of an issue, particularly on her service return, but the rest of her game picked up dramatically and it wasn't long before Serena was back on the winning trail, coming home 6-3, 6-4 after losing that first set. It was an encouraging victory, perhaps not as encouraging as Venus's on Monday but a good one all the same. Pironkova made the semi-finals at Wimbeldon last year, beating Venus in the quarters, so she's no fool on grass although she has not been playing too cleverly of late. Next up is Vera Zvonareva, who coincidentally she beat handily enough the last time she stepped onto the court in the Wimbledon final a year ago.
The only blot in her copybook, other than the opening set, was the time violation she received in the final game, about which she harangued the umpire both during and at the end of the match. "I just asked her if she could, next time, either say something or is that normal procedure or had I been gone so long that they changed it?"
Welcome back Serena.
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