Emotional return for Serena Williams

WIMBLEDON, England -- On a cool, breezy Tuesday the high, ivy-covered southern wall of Centre Court was the dramatic backdrop for, well, another dramatic comeback for Serena Williams.

Dressed in white, except for a black cap, sporting several yards of trainer's tape up and down her left thigh, she traded blows with hitting partner Sasha Bajin. She moved awkwardly along the baseline on Court No. 8, stumbling on a few occasions.

Frankly, she did not look good.

This is hardly surprising, given that Serena had played all of two matches since winning the title here at the All England Club nearly a year ago. Which is why, of course, that no one would be terribly shocked if -- after 49 weeks away from the game, after what she termed a near-death experience and a debilitating series of unimaginable injuries -- she roared through the field and won her third straight Wimbledon crown.

Hours later, sitting on her changeover chair at Centre Court, Serena covered her eyes and sobbed after her first-round match. She had not played particularly well in beating Aravane Rezai, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, but it was over and she had survived.

Serena has won 13 Grand Slam singles titles -- only two fewer than the other 127 players in the draw combined. More than any other female tennis player of her generation, we have seen her win so many times, in so many ways. But never have we seen her shed so many tears of happiness or, perhaps, simply relief.

"It's just been so hard," she told the BBC moments after the match. "I never dreamt I'd be here. It was really a big win for me."

Her voice cracked as she wiped the tears from the corner of one eye with a towel.

"It's been a disaster year," she said. "I've been praying to be able to come back at Wimbledon. I didn't expect to play. I didn't expect to do anything."

In many ways, she is Serena Williams, international woman of mystery.

She disappears for months at a time and then, with little preparation, amid almost unbearable drama, returns against great odds to triumph. After missing eight months with a left knee injury, she came back and won the first tournament she played, Miami in 2004. In 2005-06, she played only one event in a span of 10 months. Five tournaments into her comeback, after looking hopelessly ragged, she won the 2007 Australian Open.

This one, though, would surpass anything we have seen. Serena, after all, is pushing 30. After her longest absence to date, this would approach the absurd. Think about it. Juan Martin del Potro, for example, missed eight months last year after suffering a serious wrist injury. Nine months into his comeback, he still isn't quite back to his championship form.

In that respect, clearly, Serena has some distance to cover.

She was seriously gassed only three minutes into the match after a strenuous rally and, after a Rezai drop shot clipped the tape and dropped in, stood gasping for breath, looking at a 0-2 deficit. She rallied, as she always seems to do, and put down Rezai -- a former No. 15 player -- emphatically in the ultimate set.

When we last saw Serena at Wimbledon, she was at the peak of her power. She took the title here, which gave her five major titles in a span of eight, and was the world's No. 1-ranked player. What happened next has been shrouded in the shadows of rumor and hearsay.

"The biggest mystery next to the Loch Ness monster," Serena said the other day. "I have never been able to figure it out."

It took a handful of enterprising American reporters to unravel some details Sunday. Williams told them she had cut both of her feet on glass in a Munich restaurant four days after she won at Wimbledon but wasn't exactly sure how it happened. Prompted by Los Angeles Times reporter Diane Pucin, Serena revealed her scars -- an almost imperceptible blemish on the inside of her left foot and a grim slash of several inches along the top of her right foot. That foot, Serena said, required surgery in Los Angeles to repair a torn tendon in March and another procedure six months later in New York.

The pulmonary embolism was even scarier. Shortness of breath on a cross-country flight landed her in an L.A. hospital, and doctors discovered blood clots in both lungs. And then, on Feb. 28, an emergency procedure was required to deal with a hematoma that developed in her stomach after she'd been taking anti-coagulant medication. Her lungs are clear, according to a recent scan, but Serena said she still must inject herself with the anti-coagulant Lovenox before long flights.

The comeback began last week in Eastbourne, where she won her opening match and blew a big lead to Vera Zvonareva and fell in a match that went past three hours. But this and the maximum-distance match she played against Rezai are just what she needs to get back in shape.

It was not artistic. In the fifth game of the final frame, she was sitting on her backside when a lob -- a terrific shot from a horribly compromised position -- dropped in for a winner. Afterward, she acknowledged that the "butt" in question is "way softer than it normally is."

This was Serena's 44th Grand Slam singles event -- and her 44th win in the first round. She has won 200 matches at the majors, a total only five women in the Open era have surpassed. Can she win six more here? On the surface, her lack of conditioning would say no. But her sometimes vertiginous history suggests it is possible.

A few hours after her victory, Serena was more composed.

"I didn't expect to have the emotions," she said. "I was pretty excited. I thought about all the things that had happened. It definitely hit me at the end of the match. I'm not a crier.

"Through the last 12 months, I've been through a lot of things -- things you guys don't even know about."

She has learned, Serena said, not to take any moment for granted.

"I could have given up and sat on the couch and said, 'I've had a fabulous career. I don't have to work extra, extra hard,'" she said. "I proved I could [do it]. That sums it up."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.