x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Serena struggles but wins warm-up game on return from injury

Former world No 1 labours to a three-set victory in first round at Eastbourne in warm-up to Wimbledon.

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, with the help of her first ace of the match.

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 and set up a possible second-round match with top-seeded Vera Zvonareva.

"I'm just so happy to be back," said Williams, who hasn't played since July last year because of a foot injury that eventually led to blood clots on her lungs.

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

The 29-year-old American, wearing an eye-catching pink dress with black underskirt, walked out to the song "I'm The World's Greatest," chosen by organisers rather than herself, and was given a warm welcome as she was introduced to a three-quarters full stadium.

But she looked unsure of herself even in the warm-up 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 semi-final 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 4-0 down, 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 "c'mon" as the confidence gradually returned.

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

Williams was still below her best in the decider, as Pironkova's flat groundstrokes continued to do some damage. The Bulgarian fought back to 2-2, but the unseeded Williams immediately broke again and had a chance to serve it out at 5-4.

The final game wasn't without incident as Williams was warned about taking too much time between points - much to her annoyance - but the Wimbledon champion kept her cool to seal a valuable victory as she looks to find some form ahead of the defense of her Wimbledon title.

In other matches on Tuesday, Ana Ivanovic went through to a second-round meeting with Venus Williams with a 6-4, 6-3 victory over Germany's Julia Goerges.

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.

After winning the last six games of the opening set, she was broken in the second set at 1-1 and 5-3. In the final set, the Russian broke in the third game but then had to fight off a break point as she served out the match.

French Open runner-up Francesca Schiavone advanced with a 7-6 (7), 6-1 win over Estonia's Kaia Kanepi.

In the men's tournament, fourth-seeded Spaniard Guillermo Garcia-Lopez was beaten 6-3, 6-4 by India's Somdev Devvarman, but sixth-seeded South African Kevin Anderson defeated Britain's Alexander Slabinsky and American qualifier Donald Young beat another Briton, Daniel Cox, 6-1, 7-5.