Serena Williams made a winning return to tennis as she and doubles partner Ons Jabeur came from a set down to beat Sara Sorribes Tormo and Marie Bouzkova 2-6 6-4 13-11 in the first round of the Eastbourne International.
The 40-year-old was playing her first match since suffering a leg injury in the first round of Wimbledon in 2021, and, despite showing some signs of rustiness, she recovered quickly as the illustrious duo progressed in the tournament.
Williams, who will make her singles comeback at Wimbledon next week, admitted she “had a lot of fun” despite having to dig deep to avoid a shock early exit.
“Our opponents played amazing,” she told Amazon Prime.
“We were just trying to stay in there after the first set.”
Asked how the partnership between her and Jabeur came about, Williams explained: “I called her. She’s been playing so well, and I knew I had to play some matches.
“She’s always been so sweet to me on tour so I thought it would be fun to play [with her].”
On recovering from her slow start, Williams said: “Yeah I caught some fire behind me! I needed that. It was good.”
Jabeur said she was “honoured” Williams had picked her as a doubles partner – but added that receiving the call was a surprise.
“I couldn’t believe it. I was having dinner… it was crazy.
“I was a little bit nervous before, playing with such a legend and she made me feel really good on the court and even when I made mistakes, she kept encouraging me, so thank you for that.”
It was evident that Jabeur, the world No.3, was feeling nervous as she made multiple errors in the early stages.
There were no signs that their opponents would be intimated as Williams and Jabeur were broken to love in just the third game, with the former showing some rustiness early on.
Tormo consolidated with her service thanks to a clever drop shot and Jabeur could only net her return.
3-1 soon became 4-1 as Williams and Jabeur were broken once more after failing to convert a game point. Jabeur, becoming increasingly frustrated, missed her shot to take it to deuce and Sorribes Tormo and Bouzkova secured the deciding point.
And although Williams and Jabeur held comfortably in the next match, with the American delighting the fans with a huge smash at the net, they could do nothing as their opponents – having hardly put a foot wrong – ran out 6-2 winners of the first set.
Williams looked to be getting slowly up to speed as she held service in the opening game of the second set thanks to another superb smash, but the illustrious duo suffered another blow when Jabeur’s forehand into the net saw them broken once more.
It was one step forward two steps back as Williams and Jabeur made their first break of the evening only to be pegged back immediately.
Williams quickly got back to her feet after taking a tumble, but she was evidently finding her rhythm, and despite being broken again, she made an angled winner, and after four consecutive breaks, she struck a volleyed winner to take a 4-3 lead.
There was more yet to come – an expertly executed lob from the 40-year-old meant she would serve for the set, and after Williams found the corner with an excellent backhand, Jabeur – who had also regained her composure – set up a match tie-break.
The tie-break swung back and forth, with Williams and Jabeur failing to convert not one but two match points, and after saving a match point of their own, their class eventually shone through.