- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 21, 2011

WIMBLEDON, England — Returning to Grand Slam tennis after a year away with 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 still was 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 just wanted to win at least one match here.”

Following Williams on Centre Court was Roger Federer, who began his chase for a record-equaling seventh Wimbledon championship by beating Mikhail Kukushkin 7-6 (7-2), 6-4, 6-2 in the wind.

Second-seeded Novak Djokovic, playing for the first time since his 43-match winning streak was stopped by Federer at the French Open, sailed into the second round with a 6-4, 6-1, 6-1 victory over Jeremy Chardy. Djokovic dropped only 11 points on serve.

Meanwhile, the sequel to the longest match in tennis history proved to be a quick, one-sided affair this time.

John Isner beat Nicolas Mahut 7-6 (7-4), 6-2, 7-6 (8-6) in just over two hours - a far cry from their 11-hour, 5-minute marathon over three days last year that Isner finally won 70-68 in the fifth set.

After Mahut sailed a forehand long on the second match point in front of a half-empty crowd on Court 3 at 8:30 p.m. local time, the two men - who became close friends after last year’s epic - embraced at the net. Isner dominated this match, breaking three times and finishing with 41 winners to only 10 unforced errors.

“It wasn’t easy, but obviously it was considerably quicker than the last time we played,” Isner said. “I definitely wanted to finish it here and really glad I am because we were running out of daylight.”

Other men’s winners included three-time Wimbledon runner-up Andy Roddick and Juan Martin del Potro. Among the women, top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki made a strong start in her latest bid for her Grand Slam title, and former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic lost in the first round.

Williams fought through a midmatch slump, then reasserted herself 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.”

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