Serena Williams slowly coming around

WIMBLEDON, England -- Oh, the tears after the first-round match, an unprecedented flash of vulnerability, were sweet.

But this is more like it:

On Thursday, after Serena Williams dropped the first set to Simona Halep, the championship beast within the American finally surfaced. In danger of letting the second set drift back to level, she stroked a hefty forehand winner and launched a scream that, even in retrospect, was terrifying.

"Come on!" Serena bellowed, low and loud, forcefully clenching her fist to underline the sentiment.

Halep, a 19-year-old Romanian who had played only eight Grand Slam singles matches in her brief career and beaten all of four top-50 players, was impressed. Maybe too much.

After looking invincible in the opening frame, Halep won two of the last 11 games. In winning 3-6, 6-2, 6-1, Serena marked herself as a genuine threat to win her third straight title at the All England Club.

This after 49 weeks away from tennis with a daunting variety of health concerns. For the record, she was more emotionally stable in her postmatch interview.

"I'm just happy to be playing," Serena said. "Hopefully I'll get better as the tournament goes on. I guess I just want to play longer matches so I can get more practice."

She was kidding -- sort of -- but it's actually a good strategy. Serena and her sister Venus, who had played in only two previous tournaments this year, always have been good at coming back after long layoffs, but those early matches are usually dicey. Clearly, this Wimbledon is a work in progress for both. Pretty, maybe not. Effective? For sure.

"I feel like I'm in shape, but I'm just playing my way into match condition," she said. "You know, just doing things that I did before. That's all I can do right now."

Arguably the most dangerous time for both of them could be this first week at Wimbledon. Venus, who has been bothered by hip and abdominal injuries, came very close to crashing out Wednesday against 40-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm. The match took 2 hours, 56 minutes -- roughly the length of three early-round matches at a Grand Slam for vintage Venus -- but she won 8-6 in the third set.

So, factoring in Serena's three-setter with Aravane Rezai, the sisters have played 11 sets already, only one fewer than the maximum. That's a flurry of activity. Add in their matches a week ago in Eastbourne -- Venus played three and Serena two -- at the age of 31 and 29, respectively, and they're probably starting to get back some of the feel in their games.

No less an authority than Martina Navratilova -- a nine-time Wimbledon champion -- has seen enough. In a good way.

"I saw enough in Serena's opening match to suggest that she could reach the final," Navratilova wrote in the London Times. "She has the biggest serve in the game, which gets her out of trouble. While I'm sure Serena was grateful just to have her next breakfast, let alone her next match, we won't see her crying again until she gets to that final."

If it were anyone else, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

But Serena's 13 Grand Slam singles titles separate her from the field here. Venus, interestingly, is next on the major board with seven. Although Maria Sharapova, Li Na and Petra Kvitova may well have something to say about it, it's certainly possible that Serena and Venus could meet in the final. It would be the third time in four years and the fifth overall. Serena also is trying to be the first woman since Steffi Graf (1991-93) to pull off the three-peat.

The big story Thursday was the fact that Serena, a four-time Wimbledon champion, was placed out in the wilds on Court 2.

"I never have too much time to warm up," Serena said. "I look at that as kind of a warm-up, trying to walk out there. I'm like, 'OK, well, this gets my legs moving.'"

The All England Club has consistently placed the Williams sisters on Court 2 (a brisk walk from the locker room), while the Federers and Nadals play exclusively on the larger, more prestigious Centre Court and Court 1.

"Yeah, they're never moved across," Serena said. "Actually, Venus and I have won more Wimbledons together than a lot of the players by ourselves, in doubles, even. So, at the end of the day, I don't know. Like I said, they're not going to change, doesn't look like."

So far, anyway, the Williams sisters aren't, either.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.