An emotional Serena Williams survived a stern test of her form and fitness to begin her Wimbledon defence with a 6-3 3-6 6-1 victory over tenacious Frenchwoman Aravane Rezai on Tuesday.
The 29-year-old seventh seed, whose participation in the tournament looked in doubt after 49 weeks out with a foot injury and serious health problems, flirted with a shock exit before her trusty serve and baseline power came to the rescue as she completed victory in one hour 36 minutes.
After ending the Centre Court contest with an ace the four-times champion buried her head in her towel and wept.
She was still teary-eyed when she gave a televised interview at courtside.
"It's been so hard, I never dreamt I would be here right now," the American, who is bidding to become the first player since Steffi Graf in 1993 to win three consecutive Wimbledon singles title, said.
"I just wanted to win just one match here seeing as I'm not playing doubles, it was just a really big win for. It's been so hard and a disaster year for me, but I've been praying and I have my family here and I just love tennis," added Williams who suffered life-threatening blood clots on her lungs in February.
It was only her third competitive match since last year's final victory over Vera Zvonareva, two weeks after which she cut her foot open in a Munich restaurant and needed 18 stitches and then surgery to repair a partially severed tendon.
As welcome backs go it was a tough one against an opponent who was once ranked 15 in the world but who has slipped after her own off-court problems this year.
Williams had to contend with all sorts of distractions in a nine-minute opening service game. A high-pitched alarm went off somewhere in the roof structure, rain drops fell, she was foot-faulted twice and her forehand misfired on several occasions as Rezai broke serve.
Luckily the looming clouds moved away and despite trailing 0-2 the former world number one soon swaggered back into the old routine and reeled off the next five games with effortless power.
Rezai, who came close to beating Williams in their only previous encounter, refused to be intimidated and hit back to break Serena's serve in the sixth game of the second set to level the match.
Williams has never suffered a first-round loss in 44 grand slams and she showed why in the decider as she bolted the door on the charging Frenchwoman.
Rezai saved two break points at 1-2 in the third set, one with the aid of a Hawkeye challenge, but a wasted backhand gave Williams breathing space.
The 13-times grand slam champion needed no second invitation, breaking again before crunching down a rasping 13th ace to move into the second round.
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