There are few things in this world that Serena Williams has enjoyed more than a comeback throughout her career. She underwent knee surgery in 2003, yet within a year of her return she was a grand slam champion again. After arriving at the 2007 Australian Open ranked 81st, she left with the title. She nearly died from a pulmonary embolism in 2011, but she toiled back to enjoy her greatest years. In 2017, she survived a life-threatening childbirth, yet she recovered to reach four grand slam finals.
Over the course of her 27 years as a professional tennis player, Williams has seen generations rise and fall, with most of her contemporaries over a decade into retirement. But time comes for us all, and in a torrid evening on Centre Court showed the challenge before her in the final chapter of her career.
After tearing a hamstring in a fall on Centre Court last year and then not playing another singles match for 52 weeks, on Tuesday she made her singles return in the same venue. Rusty and short of confidence against a player who gave her none, Williams recovered from a set down and fought her heart out before falling in the first round 7-5, 1-6, 7-6 (7) to France’s Harmony Tan.
In terms of ranking and experience, the world No 115 Tan was one of the better draws Williams could have received. But Tan is a tricky player with a deep toolbox of varied shots, slices and spins, and as Williams tried to find her range after a one-year layoff, she raised her level and offered no rhythm at all.
“When I saw the draw, I was really scared,” said Tan afterwards. “Because it’s Serena Williams, she’s a legend. I was like, oh my God. How can I play? If I could win one game, or two games, it’s really good for me.’
Despite struggling early on, Williams led 4-2, 40-15 in the first set and it seemed she had taken control. Instead, Tan continued to work Williams with drop shots and slices off both wings, forcing her to move forward and bend her knees, arresting her rhythm. She took the set by dragging Williams forward and angling a forehand passing shot winner.
As Williams seethed, the roof was closed over Centre Court. She broke serve for 2-0 after a seemingly endless 20-minute game on Tan’s serve that required seven break points and was sealed in comical fashion with a high, loopy backhand that elicited a shanked forehand from Tan.
With the break secured, Williams seemed to settle. Her serve began to fire as she dictated from the baseline instead of chasing Tan’s slice around. But she first lost her 3-1 lead, then she served for the match and Tan wrestled it from her with a backhand passing shot.
As Tan edged ahead 6-5 with a drop-shot winner, Williams served to stay in the match and fought hard, boldly saving a match point with a forehand drive volley winner as the Centre Court crowd roared as loud as they ever have for the seven-time champion. But with so few matches behind her, Williams faltered in the tight moments as Tan remained rock solid in the decisive tie-break.
“Today I gave all I could do,” said Williams. “Maybe tomorrow I could have gave more. Maybe a week ago I could have gave more. But today was what I could do. At some point you have to be able to be OK with that. And that’s all I can do.”
Williams was asked if she will be back at Wimbledon, a question she did not have the answer to. “That’s a question I can’t answer,” she said. “Like, I don’t know. Who knows? Who knows where I’ll pop up.”
Despite her uncertainty, Williams did say that a tight defeat in her first match back motivated her to return to the practice court and to improve for the US Open to come. “It definitely makes me want to hit the practice courts because when you’re playing not bad and you’re so close. Like I said, any other opponent probably would have suited my game better. So, yeah, I feel like that it’s actually kind of like, ‘OK, Serena, you can do this if you want.’”
In her press conferences over the past week, she has insisted that she has no idea exactly how long she intends to continue.
She runs a venture capitalist company now, Serena Ventures, which takes up an immense amount of time. She said that she has put on her out-of-office message for a few weeks, but then she will be back.
She has ensured that she will be stimulated when her career finally comes to an end. But there is nothing like walking out on to Centre Court and finding a way and the will to drag out the best tennis in herself, and so she keeps on coming back.
The question after her loss is what exactly she does want and whether this new comeback will turn out to be a farewell to Wimbledon.