Tennis

Serena serene in defeat

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Richard Evans

Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." Follow him on Twitter.

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EASTBOURNE, England

For a while it looked as if Serena Williams could shrug off a year away from the game, walk back on court with just one match behind her and beat the current world No. 2.

But it didn’t work out that way in the second round of the Aegon International as Vera Zvonareva kept her nerve and fought back from a set and 3-5 down to beat the reigning Wimbledon champion 3-6, 7-6, 7-5.

Serena Williams

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Rain clouds were rolling in off the English Channel and the tension was rising in the final half hour as serves were swapped; nerves were shredded and forehands missed. For a second-round match at a lower-grade tournament this was turning out to be far more dramatic than the Wimbledon final these two had played 12 months ago. Serena was a serene winner then. Little did she know what would transpire between that triumph and her next meeting with Zvonareva.

Serena may regret the moment she served for the match at 5-4 and played a loose game, never reaching match point and double faulting on game point. From that moment on all the lack of match play began to reveal itself as her experienced opponent upped the level of her own game and started to show the packed Centre Court crowd at Devonshire Park just how she reached the final at Wimbledon and the US Open last year.

The Russian’s ground strokes started to find their mark, forcing Williams to run and stretch beyond her comfort zone. And the soft grass certainly didn’t feel comfortable when Serena slipped on set point to Zvonareva, leaving Williams sitting just behind her baseline, forced to watch her opponent’s forehand land in play on her backhand side.

The momentum had taken a dramatic change of direction and although Serena battled with all her legendary determination — no one hates to lose as much as this champion — Zvonareva survived a break back when she came to serve for the match herself and eventually closed it out. It’s a victory she will tell herself she should have claimed in any case. Except for one fact: She was playing Serena Williams and no matter what the circumstances — and these were certainly unusual to say the least — nothing can ever be taken for granted.

Serena Williams

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Serena was relatively sanguine about the whole thing afterward. “I had so many short balls and just kept missing,” she said. “I could have won the match but it’s so comforting that I know I can do better and improve. I’m a little sore but, hopefully, being sore now will mean I won’t be so sore at Wimbledon.”

Like her sister Venus, Serena seemed unconcerned about the Wimbledon committee’s decision to seed her at No. 7 for The Championships, despite her having won the title last year. “It doesn’t matter to me,” she said. “I would have been happy at No. 25. I will just go out there and give 200 percent like everyone else.”

Serena says she will spend the next few days by the sea on the practice courts.

“And supporting Venus, of course,” she laughed.

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