Serena Williams victorious on return after 12-month absence... but face-tape mystery continues

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Devonshire Park Lawn Tennis Club, Eastbourne, Britain - June 21, 2022 Serena Williams of the U.S. celebrates winning her round of 16 doubles match with Tunisia's Ons Jabeur - Serena Williams victorious on return after 12-month absence... but face-tape mystery continues - ACTION IMAGES
Devonshire Park Lawn Tennis Club, Eastbourne, Britain - June 21, 2022 Serena Williams of the U.S. celebrates winning her round of 16 doubles match with Tunisia's Ons Jabeur - Serena Williams victorious on return after 12-month absence... but face-tape mystery continues - ACTION IMAGES

It had been 357 days since Serena Williams had last set foot on a competitive tennis court. But her win with Ons Jabeur at Eastbourne on Tuesday proved that - when you are as good as 23 major singles titles - the muscle memory never goes away.

This was admittedly only a doubles match, and far from a full picture of where Williams is physically. But she only shocked the tennis world by announcing her intention to play at Wimbledon a few days ago, so this was more of a glimpse than anyone had expected to get this summer.

For Williams, 40, she admitted there were times in the past year when she had doubted she would ever play again. "Absolutely, for sure, I would be dishonest if I said it wasn't," she said. "But now my body feels great."

Williams was fairly tight-lipped after the round-of-16 match about what her time out has been like. She admitted, though, that, for a while, she was not even training. "I did a lot of not training in the beginning, obviously. After I couldn't play New York, I just went cold turkey of not working out and it felt good. But I always try to stay semi-fit because you never know when you're going to enter Wimbledon."

She was not drawn on retirement questions, or whether she planned for this run to Wimbledon to be her career swansong, but did not commit to playing into next year, either. "I don't know, I can't answer that," she said. "I love tennis and I love playing, or else I wouldn't be out here, right?  But I also love what I do off the court, what I've built with Serena Ventures, it's interesting. So, it's a lot."

At Eastbourne, the chosen setting for her comeback, her presence was mysterious in the build-up to Tuesday's match. She had only emerged to practise at the grounds on Tuesday afternoon after cancelling her session on Monday at a moment's notice. It meant there was a distinct element of the surreal to watch Williams return to the court on Tuesday evening, considering how sudden this had all been.

Armed with some curious face tape on her right cheek - which she was reluctant to discuss post-match - she and Jabeur took to the court with no idea how this was going to pan out. It took her some time to shake off the rust, but when she did, there were flickers of vintage Williams as she and Jabeur emerged as 2-6 6-3 13-11 victors over Sara Sorribes Tormo and Marie Bouzkova.

 Serena Williams of United States celebrates with Ons Jabeur of Tunisia (not pictured) after winning their Women's Doubles Round of 16 match against Marie Bouzkova of Czech Republic and Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain on Day 4 of the Rothesay International at Devonshire Park on June 21, 2022 in Eastbourne - GETTY IMAGES
Serena Williams of United States celebrates with Ons Jabeur of Tunisia (not pictured) after winning their Women's Doubles Round of 16 match against Marie Bouzkova of Czech Republic and Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain on Day 4 of the Rothesay International at Devonshire Park on June 21, 2022 in Eastbourne - GETTY IMAGES
Serena Williams reacts in her round of 16 doubles match with Ons Jabeur (not pictured) on centre court on day four of the Rothesay International Eastbourne at Devonshire Park, Eastbourne. Picture date: Tuesday June 21, 2022 - PA
Serena Williams reacts in her round of 16 doubles match with Ons Jabeur (not pictured) on centre court on day four of the Rothesay International Eastbourne at Devonshire Park, Eastbourne. Picture date: Tuesday June 21, 2022 - PA
Serena Williams celebrates with team-mate Ons Jabeur after winning the round of 16 doubles match on centre court on day four of the Rothesay International Eastbourne at Devonshire Park, Eastbourne. Picture date: Tuesday June 21, 2022 - PA
Serena Williams celebrates with team-mate Ons Jabeur after winning the round of 16 doubles match on centre court on day four of the Rothesay International Eastbourne at Devonshire Park, Eastbourne. Picture date: Tuesday June 21, 2022 - PA

For Williams, it was "reassuring" to see how quickly she got a feel of things, considering there are just five days to go until Wimbledon begins. "Absolutely, I definitely felt good out there and I was talking with Ons in the first set and I said, 'we're not playing bad, they really played really good in that set,'" she said. "But obviously winning and getting more balls and playing a little bit more made us feel a lot better and it definitely felt reassuring, like, okay, it's clicking in practice and now it seems like it's clicking."

If there were nerves ahead of the match, it was to be expected. It was her first match in a year, and on grass - the surface which had helped aggravate her hamstring injury last year when she slipped at Wimbledon. There were some erratic errors and a bit of awkward footwork at first, but so, too, were there flickers of her unmatched competitive zeal.

A couple of overstated overhead smashes in the first set showed Williams was keen to make her mark. Though they lost the first set, partly owing to their lack of intuitiveness, Williams and Jabeur fought back.

Jabeur, the world No 3, admitted afterwards that she was nervous at the prospect of playing with Williams, a giant of the sport who she only got to practise with a couple of hours prior.

There was a nervy moment, too, when Williams slipped at the net. Later, Jabeur also slipped badly. But both of them rallied, fighting back from a break down twice in the second set.

On the most important points, it was Williams that rose to the occasion. Her cross-court backhand winner gave them set point in the second set and, then, a vintage 102mph ace down the 'T' pushed it to a match tiebreak. The length-of-court she found during the tiebreak showed the class that remains in her game, even without matches under her belt. To set up their first match point, Williams also defended the net at full stretch.

It would take until the third match point for the pair to clinch it and extend this unexpected summer of tennis for Williams.