A delighted Venus Williams fought for more than three hours to defeat Camila Giorgi at the Rothesay Classic in Birmingham and post her best victory for nearly four years.
Two days after her 43rd birthday and with a right knee problem restricting her movement, the former world number one showed that her competitive spirit has not diminished as she ground out a 7-6 (5) 4-6 7-6 (6) win.
Williams plays sparingly these days, returning at a grass-court event in the Netherlands last week for her first tournament since January, and this was only her second victory since Wimbledon 2021, and her first over a top-50 opponent since 2019.
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Giorgi is a former Wimbledon quarter-finalist and a player very much at home on grass but Williams still possesses a fearsome strike, while her serve touched 120mph.
A heavy fall in the first set did not help her knee and she noticeably limped but she kept her nose in front, putting aside the disappointment of failing to serve out the match at 5-3 in the decider to take her second match point in the tie-break.
Williams held her arms aloft and repeatedly pumped her fist as the crowd, who had been drowned out at times by the support from the Ashes Test down the road, cheered.
“This one is especially sweet because I have been away from the tour for so long,” she said. “The last couple of years I’ve had little to no matches and long stretches between matches and that’s very challenging.
“I almost feel like when I’m on the court I’m reminded of things I used to do that worked really well, so there’s a lot of memories and deja vu – I’ve never had that experience before. I felt like I played well the whole match and that felt great.
“Tennis is awesome. There’s so many people that would love to do what I’m doing right now so I don’t take it for granted. I faced some huge challenges in the match. I thought I didn’t do much wrong and I found myself still not winning. I think that brought the emotion out.”
There were different emotions for another former top-10 player returning to grass, with Elina Svitolina beaten 6-2 6-0 by Czech 18-year-old Linda Fruhvirtova in less than an hour.
Svitolina made a brilliant comeback on clay following the birth of daughter Skai last October, reaching the quarter-finals of the French Open, but was unable to find her feet on the grass.
Wearing the colours of her native Ukraine, the 28-year-old quickly lost the first four games and made far too many errors against a much steadier opponent.
“Linda played really well today, from the start until the end,” said Svitolina. “I don’t think she did anything wrong at any point.
“I was struggling at the beginning and obviously on the grass you have no time to adjust. For me, it didn’t happen today but I’ll go on the practice court and try to do better next time.”
Svitolina chose not to use her protected ranking from before her pregnancy to enter Wimbledon so must wait to find out whether she will receive a wild card.
Third seed Magda Linette had to battle her way into round two, coming from a set down to defeat Italy’s Jasmine Paolini 3-6 7-5 6-4.
Nottingham champion Katie Boulter begins her campaign on Tuesday against China’s Lin Zhu while Jodie Burrage and Harriet Dart play each other.