Tennis

Serena struggles, but she's still hungry

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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

Serena Williams wasn’t expecting miracles after 50 weeks out of the game, but down 5-0 in the first set to Tsvetana Pironkova in the Aegon International at Devonshire Park gave her something of a wake-up call.

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“I thought, ‘Hey, let’s just win a game and I’ve got her,’ ” said Serena with a peel of laughter.

She did win a game, but it didn’t win her the set. Williams had to fight her way to a 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory.

Reflecting more seriously on her performance, Williams said: “It wasn’t an easy match, but I think more than anything I wanted to win and I think mentally I was there. I could have done a lot of things better, but that’s OK. I think that’s expected.”

Serena’s opinion is important, but there is someone else’s view that counts, too. So I went in search of Richard Williams and found him sipping a drink on the sun-splashed forecourt of the players’ restaurant. As expected, his view was more blunt.

“Serena played bad,” he said. “But Serena can play bad and win. It’s been a long time away, and she was lacking a bit of confidence. With matches, she will get better. It was the same with Venus yesterday. She played bad, too.”

His daughters won’t be surprised at this appraisal. Daddy doesn’t hand out unwarranted praise, one reason they have dominated women’s tennis for a decade. But his presence in Eastbourne has given them that security blanket, the knowledge that he is there to turn to if need be.

Serena was asked whether she had been nervous after all this time away.

“Nervous is when you are, like, a little afraid,” she said. “I wasn’t afraid. I was anxious, which is like kind of when you really want it so much. I really wanted it.”

Obviously, the high-octane competitive streak that has driven Serena to the top has not waned in the past year, although she does admit that everything is like a bonus for her now.

“Especially after everything I’ve been through, it’s all fun to me now," she said. "All a bonus.”

She was asked whether it was safe for her to fall down, which she did quite heavily once, after the blood clots in the lungs, but she laughed that off.

“Look, I always try not to fall down,” she replied. “It’s definitely not cool on my nails if I fall because I can potentially break one and that makes me really upset.”

She got even more personal when talking about her Twitter messages wishing her luck.

“Someone had wrote me, ‘When do you play?’ But I was angry at him so I never wrote him back," Serena said. "He was, like, dead to me. Couple of other people write me good messages. Ooh, I should probably stop talking right now!”

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Whatever that was all about, we may never know. But, on the tennis front, everything looks as good as it can be. There were many of us who wondered whether she would ever play again after the illness, but her appetite for the game is obviously undiminished and she was not beyond querying the umpire’s decision when she received a time warning.

“Usually," she said, "when I get one, which is very rare, they usually tell you, ‘Serena, watch your time.’ She didn’t tell me that and I didn’t know because I was in such a zone. I had no idea I was taking a lot of time. So it kind of came out of left field, so I was just asking her if, next time she could either say something. Or had I been gone so long that they changed (the rule)?”

It should be added, given a little incident at Flushing Meadows a couple years back, that Serena was asking these questions in a perfectly polite manner.

Pironkova provided strange opposition because the Bulgarian appears to be able to play well on grass and little else. Last year, she defeated Venus to reach the Wimbledon semifinal, a considerable achievement. Since then, she has gone through a pretty desperate time on the WTA Tour, winning nine matches and losing 22. There was a period this year when she lost in the first round of five consecutive tournaments. Yet, suddenly, Pironkova was able to come out firing and leap on Serena’s initial mistakes which included some wayward backhands and three double faults in her first two service games. Some good returns enabled the Bulgarian to break back from 0-2 in the third set, but Serena quickly dashed any thoughts of a real comeback by breaking again in the next game.

It might be the Williams sisters, coupled with some lovely sunshine, that has brought record crowds to Devonshire Park, but the men are playing here, as well, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is an attraction in his own right.

Having played a brilliant first set before losing to Andy Murray on Monday in the rain-delayed final at the Queen’s Club, Tsonga was driven down here to play his first match about 26 hours later.

“I was engaged to play here, so I play,” said Tsonga, after being asked if he had any thoughts of pulling out. “I am a little tired, but it’s OK. I feel good and am playing well.”

The big Frenchman demonstrated that for the benefit of an appreciative crowd by defeating Denis Istomin 6-2, 7-5.

Donald Young was also in first-round action. The young American hit some good winners on the fast grass in a 6-1, 7-5 win over Daniel Cox.
 

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