Ponderous, error-strewn and undignified. The first 18 minutes of Serena Williams’s comeback to competitive tennis were enough to transform the good citizens of Sussex into Eastbourne’s equivalent of a raging mob.
As she trudged over to her seat in mid-game, having plopped another dreadfully timed forehand into the lower half of the net and proceeded to remove the plastic wrapping from a fresh racket as if it were an unwanted Christmas present from a loathed relative, a slow handclap broke out among the placid patrons.
Life in the south coast town is renowned for its leisurely pace and gentle entertainment, yet the people had turned out in record numbers to witness her primeval power and raw grunts. They were getting neither.
Thankfully Williams awoke from her slumber just in time. Timing returned to her racket and her feet began to, if not dance, at least move in unison.
She even circumnavigated another brush with her impatient public, who enthusiastically applauded umpire Alison Lang’s decision to issue her with a slow-play warning.
And when a desperate forehand from Tsvetana Piron-kova fell wide nearly two hours later, Williams claimed her first match win since she stepped off Centre Court last July, Wimbledon champion for the fourth time.
The importance of this 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 win may not be fully appreciated until Williams attempts to negotiate seven matches at Wimbledon. It was, though, remarkable in itself, a triumph for cussedness and desire.
Whatever the outcome against Vera Zvonareva, the Russian girl Williams crushed in the Wimbledon final 12 months ago, in the next round, it would be foolish to dismiss the notion that the American could retain her title at the All England Club. She now knows it, too, even if her concern afterwards was to blame over-excitement, not nerves, for her appalling start.
She said: ‘I was more anxious than anything but there was no need to be. Anxiety comes from wanting it so much whereas being nervous is when you are a little afraid. I wasn’t afraid. I just really wanted it.
‘There are a lot of things mentally that I do in my mind that I’m kind of redoing again. It just kind of clicks. It wasn’t as strong as when I left but I’m hoping it will get better with every day and every match.’
Williams had walked on court to the thumping rhythms of R Kelly’s The World’s Greatest — choice of tournament chiefs, not the player, although the 13-time Grand Slam champion did not appear to object.
Then again, her reputation counted for nothing as she dumped serves, forehands and backhands tamely into the net during a first set that was nothing short of embarrassing.
She was helped by less consistent hitting from Pironkova to open the second set, allowing Williams to establish a modicum of control. Moments of brilliance peeked through. Aces sent scudding on to the lines when her serve was threatened, groundstrokes clipped with ever increasing assurance and, most memorably, a running cross-court forehand picked off her shoelaces for an audacious winner.
As her confidence grew, so did the decibel level, piercing the tranquil air that hangs above the Devonshire Park courts. This was what a crowd of 5,500 — the largest Tuesday attendance in the 38-year history of the AEGON International and its forerunners — had come to see.
It is what the Wimbledon audiences will expect, too. Do not doubt that after 11 months away Williams might just deliver.