Serena Williams’ return to the court at Wimbledon was slowed down by Harmony Tan, who defeated the American in straight sets in the first round of the competition. Sports Illustrated staff members Jon Wertheim and Chris Almeida discuss the match and what it means for Williams in the twilight of her career.
Chris Almeida: So here we are on day two 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 just over a year. She lost to 24-year-old Frenchwoman Harmony Tan 7–5, 1–6, 7–6. It was a long game, it lasted more than three hours. There were many tentative rallies. Tan looked like a player outside the top 100 trying to beat Serena Williams. Serena looked like someone who had taken a gap year.
Jon Wertheim: I think it’s right. And I think she looked more like that than a 40-year-old woman. I think it was less about age than about taking a gap year.
He had his chances. It was a strange game in many ways. We’re not used to seeing Serena Williams as a sentimental loser. 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 didn’t get the feeling that this was the last match of her unprecedented career.
CALIFORNIA: No problem. He lost the match, but he was right there. She was serving for the match in the third set. She came back after losing the first set. But there were a lot of tight shots and that was weird to see on her. She seemed nervous, and maybe just knowing that if this isn’t the end of her career, she’s near the end, the weight of it got to her. She felt the weight of the moment.
JW: No, I think there is sometimes a misperception that only young players get nervous and that experienced players can rely on all the experience gained from matches to keep them relaxed. 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 will be in this position. And again, this was not a classic Serena match. This was not the movement and hitting of the ball and the type of opportunity tennis we are used to from Serena Williams. But she tried to solve the problem. And again, I think this was much more due to a lack of match play.
CALIFORNIA: did you see some flashes from 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 at the end of the match. Some smashes went her way, some big serves came off the lines and I said oh, looks like it used to. But it just wasn’t there consistently enough. God bless her, it was an entertaining game.
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JW: “God bless you” was exactly my reaction. If I lost 6–2, 6–2, which wasn’t in the equation, you’d think: It’s a great race, time’s up. This was not that. I mean, she was right there at the match. She was leading in the third set. She was leading in the tiebreaker. She tensed up, and we’re not used to seeing that necessarily 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.
CALIFORNIA: So you are the informant here. In his article that went up yesterday, he said that he highly suspected that Serena is going to forgo any sort of formal retirement. You don’t think he really enjoys 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 that everything conventional we know about athletes just doesn’t apply here. You could wake up tomorrow and say: Did you know? That is all. 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 very different. The motivations are very different and resisting conventions has always been fundamental throughout this story. Who knows? You talk to people, even people close to her who claimed to be experts who never thought she would play Wimbledon 2022. So I’m not sure she knows. I’m not sure there is a game plan. Which is part of the beauty of it. And nothing would surprise me.
CALIFORNIA: Well, I think everyone would be happy if we saw her again.
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