Serena survives, Clijsters falls early

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Serana Williams made a winning return to action after nearly a year out with victory over Bulgaria's Tsvetana Pironkova at Eastbourne, England, yesterday.

The 29-year-old American, out of action due to injury and health problems since winning last year's Wimbledon title, looked nervy and sluggish initially before settling down to win 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 and move into the second round.

It was far from pretty, but after claiming on Monday she had been on her "death bed" earlier this year, the 13-time grand slam champion would have been encouraged to beat a player who reached last year's Wimbledon semifinals.

"She is an unbelievable player, she beat Venus at Wimbledon last year and when I saw the draw, I thought, 'Oh my God'," wildcard Williams, who suffered life-threatening blood clots in her lungs in February while recovering from gashing her foot last July, said in a courtside interview. "I'm a little rusty but I enjoy being back on the grass. I will go inside now and see how I feel."

Dressed in pink and with purple streaks in her hair, Williams strode out on to a sunny center court with little ceremony, took an age to unwrap her racket from its plastic cover before gingerly taking the first steps on the latest and most challenging comeback of her career.

With barely 20 minutes on the clock, however, she was 0-5 down as the American, playing at Eastbourne for the first time since 1998, slapped amateurish forehands into the net and looked leaden-footed. Her annoyance was clear for all to see as she cursed herself and cracked a racket frame.

There was even a slow hand clap as she took ages to replace the racket, hardly the welcome back she would have envisaged. Gradually there were signs that she was beginning to rediscover her feel as she held serve at the start of the second set and forged a break ahead on her way to leveling the match.

Williams let out a loud "c'mon!" and clenched her fist as she broke again at the start of the decider with some forceful tennis and confident forays to the net.

Former world No. 1 Ana Ivanovic of Serbia reached the second round with a 6-4, 6-3 victory over Germany's Julia Goerges to set up a tussle with Venus Williams. Fourth seed Francesca Schiavone beat Kaia Kanepi 7-6 (7), 6-1.

In Den Bosch, Netherlands, Kim Clijsters lost in the second round of the Unicef Open to Italy's Romina Oprandi 6-7(5), 3-6 yesterday, a premature end to the world No. 2's Wimbledon preparations.

Clijsters skidded to the net and stumbled in just the second game and appeared tentative throughout the match, although she did not call for any medical treatment and it was not clear if she injured an ankle. Oprandi repeatedly surprised Clijsters with heavily sliced backhand drop-shot winners, many of them off Clijsters' serve.

It was the Belgian's second straight second-round exit, after losing to Arantxa Rus of the Netherlands at the same stage of the French Open.

In the men's draw, Belgian third seed Xavier Malisse beat Alejandro Falla 6-3, 6-1 and will next face Dutch wildcard Jesse Huta Galung.

Huta Galung beat Julian Reister of Germany 6-2, 3-6, 7-5. The Dutchman said he was "able to move up a gear" after a scrappy first two sets.

Also, fifth seed Jarkko Nieminen beat Maximo Gonzalez 7-5, 6-1.

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