Serena Williams scrapes by in first tourney in a year

Serena Williams of the U.S. plays a return to Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria during their singles tennis match at the Eastbourne International grass court tennis tournament in Eastbourne, England,Tuesday, June 14, 2011.
AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

EASTBOURNE, England - Serena Williams recovered from a terrible start to win her first match after nearly a year out injured, beating Tsvetana Pironkova 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 Tuesday in the first round at Eastbourne.

The 13-time Grand Slam champion started out looking nothing like the player who lifted the Wimbledon trophy last year in her last tournament. Her movement was uncertain, and she appeared not to trust her groundstrokes or her usually dominant serve.

She held for the first time at 5-0 down, and slowly began to look like her old self. Williams reeled off the first three games of the second set to take control, and despite squandering a 2-0 lead in the decider, she broke again to secure the win.

"How difficult was the first set? It wasn't too difficult, it wasn't long," Williams said. "It was over really fast and I thought, well hopefully I can get some momentum. I think I was just a little anxious and missing a tremendous amount of shots."

Williams hasn't played since July last year after cutting her foot, which led to blood clots on her lungs. By the time she came to serve out the match after two hours on court, the 29-year-old American was breathing heavily and was given a warning by the umpire for taking too much time between points.

Williams said she thought she should have been given a pre-warning, and wondered "whether had I been gone so long that they changed it." But despite the struggle, Williams said she had enjoyed her return.

"I definitely think I had fun," she said. "After everything I've been through, it's all fun to me now. It's all a bonus."

Next is a repeat of the 2010 Wimbledon final against top-seeded Vera Zvonareva, a 6-3, 6-3 winner over British wild card Heather Watson.

"I don't remember too much from (the Wimbledon final), I remember a lot after that," she said. "She's a great player and I have nothing to lose. I'm going to go in there and do what I can do. Whatever happens, happens."

It looked like being a short-lived return to competitive action when Williams dropped the first set against Pironkova in 27 minutes.

Williams, wearing an eye-catching pink dress with black underskirt, walked out to the song "I'm The World's Greatest," chosen by organizers rather than herself, and was given a warm welcome as she was introduced to a nearly full stadium.

But she looked unsure of herself even in the warmup and it spilled over into the match. Her sister Venus, who returned after five months out on Monday, began her match with two double-faults, and Serena opened her first service game with one of her own.

Pironkova, who reached the semifinals at Wimbledon last year but had won only four matches this year, showed no sympathy to her opponent's predicament, and her fierce groundstrokes made Williams look pedestrian at times.

After falling behind 4-0, Williams smacked her racket into the turf in disgust. On winning her first game to make it 5-1, the former top-ranked player heard the rare sound of sympathetic applause.

The unseeded Bulgarian then took the set with a forehand winner.

Williams, though, had begun to look - and sound - more like her old self. She increasingly greeted her winners, and an improving first serve, with some determined cries of "come on" as the confidence gradually returned.

Leading 5-3 in the second set, she fell behind 0-30 but responded with a 193 kph (120 mph) ace down the middle and a 183 kph (114 mph) ace out wide.

After letting a 2-0 lead slip, Williams immediately broke again and had a chance to serve it out at 5-4, but the final game wasn't without incident as Williams received a time violation and also slipped on the grass before completing the win.

Although she "felt a little something" in her foot during the match, that wasn't her main concern when she fell over.

"It's definitely not cool on my nails if I fall," she said. "I can potentially break one and that makes me really upset. I have three weeks to get through without breaking a nail."

Also Tuesday, Ana Ivanovic went through to a second-round meeting with Venus Williams with a 6-4, 6-3 victory over Julia Goerges of Germany.

The former No. 1-ranked Serb won her last two events of 2010, but she has struggled and lost in the first round in four of her 10 tournaments this season. Her semifinal last week in Birmingham was her first of the year.

"I don't expect myself to go out there and play great every match," Ivanovic said. "I just expect myself to work hard. But it's hard. I do have to think about going back to basics for a moment and trying to get the practice in, trying to stay healthy and trying to stay basically on top of small things."

Defending champion Ekaterina Makarova labored to a 6-1, 3-6, 6-4 win over Croatian qualifier Mirjana Lucic, and French Open runner-up Francesca Schiavone advanced with a 7-6 (7), 6-1 win.