Wimbledon, England, Jun 22 : The 352 days Serena Williams lived through between Grand Slam appearances were filled with health problems and hospitalizations, doubts and depression.
Cuts by glass on both feet. One subsequent operation on her right foot, then a second. Clots in her lungs. Surgery to remove a pool of blood under her skin. On and on it went.
Finally healthy, and finally back at a major tournament, Williams was simply overwhelmed by it all at the conclusion of her match at Wimbledon on Tuesday. As soon as she snapped off her 13th ace of the afternoon to close an uneven performance in a 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 victory over Aravane Rezai of France in the first round, Williams placed her right palm on her chest. Her eyes welled with tears.
By the time she walked to the net to shake hands with Rezai, Williams was crying. She sat in her sideline chair, covered her face with a tournament towel and sobbed.
And she kept right on bawling through a postmatch TV interview with the BBC.
“It definitely was so emotional for me because, you know, throughout the last 12 months, I've been through a lot of things that's not normal; things you guys don't even know about,” the 29-year-old American said at her news conference. “So it's just been a long, arduous road. To stand up, still, is pretty awesome.”
A first-round win at a Grand Slam tournament is not exactly the sort of achievement Williams normally would celebrate: Her career mark in such matches is now 44-0,
after all. But she'd never before been away from her sport for such an extended time—and, more to the point, she'd never before been through such a series of scares.
Williams got the “all clear” from her doctor about 2½ months ago, only began practicing at full speed about one month ago, and played her first match anywhere since
July at a grass-court tournament in Eastbourne last week.
Rezai, once ranked as high as 15th but now 61st, was struck by the high level of Williams' play, particularly down the stretch—and by her reaction at match's end.
“It shows she's not a machine; she's a human being,” Rezai said. “We all have a heart. We all have emotions. ... If she wins the next two or three matches, I think she can win the tournament.”
Williams wasn't quite ready to pronounce herself the player to beat at Wimbledon, where she has won four of her 13 Grand Slam singles championships, including each of the past two years.
It was only a handful of days after that latest title that Williams was sliced on both feet by glass at a restaurant in Germany. She played an exhibition match in Belgium later that week, but eventually realized she needed surgery. Williams now has a jagged scar that runs several centimeters (inches) from the top of her right foot up her leg.
“She really appreciated this chance to return to tennis, and she couldn't wait to get back,” her mother, Oracene Price, said after watching the match on Center Court, where singer Diana Ross had a front-row seat in the Royal Box. “Now she has something to get that zeal back. The hunger and the fire that you lose comes back. I know she had been depressed at times.”
The seventh-seeded Williams started slowly against Rezai.
Williams fell behind 2-0 after getting broken in the match's opening game, during which a shrill fire alarm from a nearby building steadily rang for about five minutes, creating an odd, distracting backdrop while play continued uninterrupted.
Rezai won the first game with a drop shot that bounced twice before Williams could get there; that was one of several points that ended with Williams huffing and puffing, trying to catch her breath, a not-all-that-surprising development given that she is still working her way back into form.
But Rezai also helped out, double-faulting twice while getting broken to 2-all, and twice more while falling behind 4-2.
That was enough for Williams to take that set; her own blips arose in the second. She lost her serve to fall behind 4-2, stumbling a bit while missing a backhand, then double-faulting on break point. Three games later, Williams missed a forehand wide, then admonished herself with a high-pitched shriek, and the match was tied at a set apiece.
And then? “She woke up in the third set,” Price said.
That she did. Grunting loudly, and swatting big serves, Williams never faced a break point the rest of the way. She broke Rezai twice, including at love to lead 5-1.
That was part of a 10-point run to end the match, her 200th victory at a Grand Slam tournament.
It had been quite a while since her 199th.
“Being out for so long really, really is unfortunate. I love playing tennis. I love being a part of the competition. So I thought if I could make it, I'll try to do my best. And that's what I did,” said Williams, who wore a long cardigan sweater during prematch warmups, and had two oversized pieces of bandaging on her back, which she said was for warmth.
“I'm still overcoming every day,” she added. “This isn't the end of the road; it's just the beginning.” AP