EASTBOURNE, England — Playing tennis again after recovering from blood clots in her lungs and two foot operations, Serena Williams slipped and fell in the final game of her match at Eastbourne.
She got up immediately and carried on the point, although she lost it. But it was not long before the 13-time Grand Slam champion was a winner once more.
After nearly a year off the WTA Tour, Williams regrouped after a slow start to defeat Bulgaria's Tsvetana Pironkova 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 Tuesday in the first round of a Wimbledon warmup.
Williams was briefly worried about tweaking the right foot that was in a cast for 10 weeks.
"I felt a little something. I got a little nervous," she said. "I was like, 'Oh.' Then I thought this is grass. You know, you're really moving. You're stopping, you're going. If I can survive this, especially with this long match, I'll be good."
Wearing a pink dress that she said was inspired by French actress Brigitte Bardot, Williams walked onto the court to the song "I'm The World's Greatest," chosen by organizers. She was given a warm welcome when introduced to a stadium three-quarters full.
She initially looked nothing like the player who lifted the 2010 Wimbledon trophy 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. Williams reeled off the first three games of the second set to take control. Despite squandering a 2-0 lead in the last set, she broke again and victory was secure.
"How difficult was the first set? It wasn't too difficult, it wasn't long," Williams said. "It was over really fast. And I thought, well hopefully I can get some momentum. I think I was just a little anxious and missing a tremendous amount of shots."
Williams hadn't played since July after cutting her foot on glass at a restaurant in Germany. She had surgery twice and later was diagnosed with pulmonary embolisms.
By the time she served out the match after two hours on court, the 29-year-old American was breathing heavily. She drew a warning for too much time between points. Williams thought the rebuke too harsh and wondered "whether had I been gone so long that they changed it."
Still, despite the struggle, Williams enjoyed her return.
"After everything I've been through, it's all fun to me now," she said. "It's all a bonus."
And not breaking a nail during the fall was a plus.
"It's definitely not cool on my nails if I fall," she said. "I can potentially break one and that makes me really upset. I have three weeks to get through without breaking a nail."
Williams, unseeded because she has been away so long, looked unsure during warmups. And her play spilled into the match – she dropped the first set in 27 minutes. Her sister Venus, who returned from a hip injury after five months away, began her match Monday with two double-faults. Serena opened her first service game with one of her own.
Pironkova, who reached the semifinal at Wimbledon last year but had won only four matches this year, capitalized on fierce groundstrokes. After trailing 4-0, 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. Her opponent then took the set with a forehand winner.
Soon Williams began to look – and sound – like her old self. She greeted winners, and an improving first serve, with cries of "c'mon." Leading 5-3 in the second set, she trailed 0-30 but responded with a 120 mph ace down the middle and a 114 mph ace out wide.
Williams was still below her best in the third set, and Pironkova's flat groundstrokes continued to do damage. She rallied to 2-2, but Williams immediately broke again and served it out at 5-4.
Next up is a repeat of the 2010 Wimbledon final against top-seeded Vera Zvonareva, a 6-3, 6-3 winner over British wild card Heather Watson.
"She's a great player and I have nothing to lose," Williams said. "I'm going to go in there and do what I can do. Whatever happens, happens."
In other matches, Ana Ivanovic advanced to a second-round match against with Venus Williams with a 6-4, 6-3 win over Julia Goerges of Germany.
The former No. 1-ranked Serb won her last two events of 2010, but she has 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."
Defending champion Ekaterina Makarova labored to a 6-1, 3-6, 6-4 win over Croatian qualifier Mirjana Lucic. French Open runner-up Francesca Schiavone advanced with a 7-6 (7), 6-1 win over Kaia Kanepi.
On the men's side, top-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won his first round-match against Denis Istomin 6-2, 7-5, a day after losing the delayed Queen's final to Andy Murray.
A foot injury forced former Wimbledon champion Lleyton Hewitt to quit his match against Olivier Rochus while trailing 6-2, 3-0. Fourth-seeded Guillermo Garcia-Lopez lost 6-3, 6-4 to Somdev Devvarman of India.
Sixth-seeded Kevin Anderson defeated Alexander Slabinsky of Britain, and American qualifier Donald Young beat Daniel Cox 6-1, 7-5.