Serena Williams advances at Wimbledon

Updated: June 21, 2011, 7:20 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

WIMBLEDON, England -- Returning to Grand Slam tennis after a year out because of health problems, Serena Williams opened her Wimbledon title defense Tuesday by beating Aravane Rezai in three sets -- then burst into tears on Centre Court.

After serving her 13th ace to close a 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 victory, Williams buried her face in her towel and sobbed from her courtside chair. She was still crying as she left the court, overcome with emotion after enduring a long layoff that included two foot operations and treatment for blood clots in her lungs.

"I usually don't cry ... but it's just been so hard," the four-time Wimbledon champion said. "I never dreamt I would be here right now. And then to win. I just wanted to win at least one match here."

Williams fought through a midmatch slump and then reasserted command over her French opponent in the third set with a big serve and powerful groundstrokes. She showed why she is still considered a title favorite despite her long absence and her No. 7 seeding.

"It's been a disaster year, but I've been praying," Williams said. "To be able to come back at Wimbledon is pretty awesome. I didn't expect to play. And I didn't expect to even do anything. So I'm just excited. I've never cried with joy for anything."

After losing the second set, Williams took charge in the final set, winning the last five games.

"I kept thinking, 'This is Wimbledon,' " she said.

The point of the match came at 3-1, when Williams stretched for a backhand at the baseline and fell over as she hit a winning lob over Rezai at the net. Rezai said she saw the tears in Williams' eyes when they shook hands after the match.

"It definitely was so emotional for me because throughout the last 12 months, I've been through a lot of things that's not normal, things you guys don't even know about," Williams said. "It's just been a long, arduous road. To stand up still is pretty awesome."

In keeping with Wimbledon tradition, Williams opened play on Day 2 on Centre Court as the women's defending champion. She strode onto the court wearing a cardigan and played in a classic dress with blue trim. Her fingernails were painted in the Wimbledon colors of purple and green.

The 61st-ranked Rezai came out hitting hard, breaking Williams in the first game that lasted nine minutes and going up 2-0. But Williams then won five games in a row and took the set with only four unforced errors. Williams lost the momentum in the second set, and Rezai broke in the sixth game to force a third set.

Williams said it was the most emotional she's ever felt after a victory -- and this was only a first-round match.

"For me it wasn't about winning the match," she said. "It was about being out there. ... It just really goes to show if you don't give up, you still have a chance. I guess I proved that I could, that I could. I think that sums it up: I could."

Rezai was impressed by Williams' play and touched by her outpouring.

"It shows she's not a machine, she's a human being," Rezai said. "We all have a heart, we all have emotions. ... If she wins the next two or three matches, I think she can win the tournament."

Virginie Razzano, who played with a broken heart at the French Open, can likely relate to Williams' sentiment about not giving up. She won for the first time since the death of her fiancé, beating Sania Mirza of India 7-6 (4), 2-6, 6-3.

Last month, Razzano lost in her first-round French Open match, barely a week after Stephane Vidal died at 32 -- nine years after being diagnosed with a brain tumor.

She says she is playing because "it's my job and my passion, and I must continue."

Razzano will face top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki in the next round. Razzano is 0-4 against the Dane, including a loss in the Eastbourne final in 2009.

Wozniacki had a confidence-building start in her latest bid to win her first Grand Slam title, with a 6-2, 6-1 win over Arantxa Parra Santonja of Spain.

Wozniacki hit fewer winners than her opponent, but only made five unforced errors, and needed less than an hour against the 105th-ranked Parra Santonja.

French Open champion Li Na safely negotiated her opening match, defeating Alla Kudryavtseva of Russia 6-3, 6-3.

The third-seeded Li broke serve four times en route to a routine win over the No. 72-ranked Kudryavtseva.

Li became the first Chinese player to win a Grand Slam singles title when she beat Francesca Schiavone in the French Open final this month. She is trying to become the seventh woman to achieve a French Open-Wimbledon double in the Open era.

Former champion Maria Sharapova also moved into the second round, winning an all-Russian match against Anna Chakvetadze 6-2, 6-1.

The No. 52-ranked Chakvetadze managed to break once in the second set but was otherwise outclassed by her sixth-seeded opponent in just over an hour.

Sharapova, who won the tournament in 2004 but hasn't gone beyond the fourth round since 2006, is the only former champion in the women's tournament other than the Williams sisters.

No. 10 Samantha Stosur became the highest seeded player eliminated, falling 6-3, 6-4 to Hungary's Melinda Czink -- the lowest-ranked woman in the draw at No. 262.

Former top-ranked Jelena Jankovic was also eliminated, losing to Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez of Spain 5-7, 6-4, 6-3. The 15th-seeded Serb reached the fourth round at the All England Club last year.

Among the players advancing were No. 4 Victoria Azarenka, No. 8 Petra Kvitova, No. 11 Andrea Petkovic and No. 14 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.