WIMBLEDON, England – The 352 days Serena Williams lived through between Grand Slam appearances were filled with health problems and hospitalizations, doubts and depression.
Cuts from 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 44-0.
But she’d never been away from her sport for such an extended time – and, more to the point, she’d never been through such a series of scares. Williams got the “all clear” from her doctor about 21/2 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 has a jagged scar that runs several 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.”
There was none of that sort of drama on the day’s later matches on Centre Court, which included straight-set victories for Roger Federer, Andy Roddick Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova.
Other winners included 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro, two-time French Open finalist Robin Soderling, top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki and French Open champion Li Na.
But former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic lost.
Day 2 of Wimbledon also featured a rematch of the longest match in tennis history. In a sequel that couldn’t possibly live up to the original, John Isner beat Nicolas Mahut 7-6 (4), 6-2, 7-6 (6) in 2 hours, 3 minutes – 9 hours, 2 minutes shorter, and 149 fewer games, than their first-round match at the All England Club a year ago, when Isner won 70-68 in the fifth set.