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Serena Williams Falls, but Shows This May Not Be the End Just Yet

In her first singles match in more than a year, Williams lost to Frenchwoman Harmony Tan but displayed the fight that has made her 27-year career so spectacular.

Serena Williams’s return to the court at Wimbledon was halted by Harmony Tan, who defeated the American in three sets in the first round of the competition. Sports Illustrated staffers Jon Wertheim and Chris Almeida discuss the match and what it means for Williams in the twilight of her career. 

Chris Almeida: So we are here on the second day of The Championships late at night in England and not so late at night here in Chicago. Serena Williams is out of the tournament after playing her first singles match in a little over a year. She lost to the 24-year-old Frenchwoman, Harmony Tan, 7–5, 1–6, 7–6. It was a long match—it lasted over three hours. There were a lot of tentative rallies. Tan looked like a player outside of the top 100 trying to beat Serena Williams. Serena looked like somebody who had taken a year off.

Jon Wertheim: I think that's right. And I think she looked more like that than she looked like a 40-year-old. I think this was less about age than it was about just taking a gap year.

She had her chances. It was a strange match in a lot of respects. We’re not used to seeing Serena Williams as the sentimental underdog. We’re not used to seeing Serena Williams squander opportunities. We’re not used to seeing her lose to players outside the top 100. But there was also something dignified about it. She could compete. You did not get the sense that this was the last match of her unparalleled career.

CA: Not at all. She lost the match, but she was right there. She was serving for the match in the third set. She stormed back after losing the first set. But there were a lot of tight strokes and that was strange to see from her. She looked nervous, and maybe just her knowing that if this isn’t the end of her career, it’s near the end, the weight of that got to her. She felt the weight of the moment.

Serena Williams celebrates winning a point against Harmony Tan at Wimbledon.

Williams showed the same passion that she’s displayed throughout her storied career.

JW: No, I think there’s a misperception sometimes that just the young players get nervous and that experienced players can rely on all the accumulated experience from match play to stay loose. I think you’re absolutely right. I think the nerves come when you realize the momentous occasion when you wonder how many more times you'll be in this position. And again, this was not a vintage Serena match. This was not the movement and the ball striking and the sort of opportunity tennis we’re used to from Serena Williams. But she tried to problem solve. And again, I think this was much more about the lack of match play.

CA: You saw 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 match. Some smashes went her way, some big serves kicked off the lines and I said oh, that looks like it used to. But it just wasn’t there consistently enough. God bless her, it was an entertaining match.

JW: “God bless” was exactly my reaction. If she lost 6–2, 6–2, which wasn’t in the equation, you’d think: it’s a great career, time’s up. This was not that. I mean, she was right there in the match. She was leading in the third set. She was leading in the tiebreaker. She tightened up, and we’re not used to necessarily seeing that from her and that’s antithetical to how she won 23 majors, but, you know, I’m curious what her conversation with herself is like.

CA: So you’re the insider here. In your piece that went up yesterday, you said that you strongly suspected that Serena is going to forgo any type of formal retirement. You don’t think she’s going to really bask in the attention like a lot of other all-time greats do in other sports now. What do you think is next for her?

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JW: I just think every conventional thing we know about athletes just doesn’t apply here. She could wake up tomorrow and say: You know what? That’s it. And she could say: I’m not happy losing to Harmony Tan, I’m gonna 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 so central to this whole story. Who knows? You talk to people, even people close to her who claimed to be insiders who never thought she’d play Wimbledon 2022. So I’m not sure she knows. I’m not sure there’s a game plan. Which is part of the beauty of it. And nothing would surprise me.

CA: Well, I think that everyone would be happy if we saw her again.

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