Serena Williams’ return to the Wimbledon court was halted by Harmony Tan, who beat the American in straight sets in the first round of competition. Sports Illustrated staffers Jon Wertheim and Chris Almeida discuss the game and what it means for Williams in the twilight of his career.
Chris Almeida: So here we are on the second day of the Championships late at night in England and not so late at night here in Chicago. Serena Williams is ruled out of the tournament after playing her first singles match in just over a year. She lost to 24-year-old Frenchwoman Harmony Tan 7–5, 1–6, 7–6. It was a long match, it lasted more than three hours. There were many timid gatherings. Tan looked like a player outside the top 100 trying to beat Serena Williams. Serena looked like someone who had taken a year off.
Jon Wertheim: I think it’s true. And I think she looked more like that than a 40-year-old woman. I think it was less about age than just taking a year off.
She had her chances. It was a strange game in many ways. We’re not used to seeing Serena Williams as the sentimental underdog. We’re not used to seeing Serena Williams wasting opportunities. We’re not used to seeing her lose to players outside of the top 100. But there was also something worthy about it. She could compete. You didn’t feel like it was the last game of his unprecedented career.
CALIFORNIA: No way. She lost the match, but she was there. She was serving for the match in the third set. She came back with a bang after losing the first set. But there were a lot of tight shots and it was strange to see her. She looked nervous, and maybe she just knew that if this isn’t the end of her career, it’s nearly the end, the weight of it weighed on her. She felt the weight of the moment.
JW: No, I think there is sometimes a misconception that only young players get nervous and experienced players can rely on all the experience accumulated in match play to stay free. I think you are absolutely right. I think the nerves come when you realize the momentous occasion where you wonder how many times you will be in this position. And again, this wasn’t a vintage Serena match. It wasn’t the movement and ball-striking and kind of opportunity tennis we’re used to from Serena Williams. But she tried to solve the problems. And again, I think it was a lot more because of the lack of match play.
CALIFORNIA: You have seen some flashes of vintage Serena there in the third set. I think she saw the finish line and was desperately trying to get there. She had some very passionate celebrations late in the game. A few smashes went his way, a few big serves threw the lines and I said oh, looks like before. But it just wasn’t there regularly enough. God bless her, it was an entertaining game.
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JW: “God bless you” was exactly my reaction. If she lost 6–2, 6–2, which wasn’t in the equation, you would think: it’s a great career, time is up. It was not this. I mean, she was right there in the game. She was leading in the third set. She was leading in the tiebreaker. She’s tightened up, and we’re not necessarily used to seeing that from her and it’s contrary to how she’s won 23 majors, but, you know, I’m curious what it’s like her conversation with herself.
CALIFORNIA: So you are the insider here. In your post yesterday, you said you strongly suspected that Serena would forego any type of formal retirement. You don’t think she’s really going to bask in the attention like a lot of other all-time greats do now in other sports. What do you think is the next step for her?
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JW: I just think everything we know about athletes doesn’t apply here. She might wake up tomorrow and say: You know what? That’s it. And she could say: I’m not happy to lose to Harmony Tan, I’ll try to do better next year. I mean, I think the thought process is so different. The motivations are so different and resisting convention has always been at the heart of this whole story. Who knows? You talk to people, even relatives who claimed to be insiders who never thought she would play Wimbledon 2022. So I’m not sure she knows. I’m not sure there’s a game plan. Which is part of its beauty. And nothing would surprise me.
CALIFORNIA: Well, I think everyone would be happy if we saw her again.
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