The Eastbourne crowd was on its feet as Serena Williams made her entrance from the tunnel onto Center Court with “What a Feeling” from “Flashdance” blasting from the sound system. She flashed a wry smile and waved as all her eyes were fixed on her every move.
As her first-round doubles match with Ons Jabeur against Sara Sorribes Tormo and Marie Bouzkova began, it seemed like every cell phone camera was pointed in her direction as she served to open the match.
While that kind of reception came as no surprise to arguably the greatest tennis player of all time and a woman with 23 major titles to her name, no one knew what to expect from the 40-year-old Williams on the court. She was playing her first match in nearly a year and had skipped her on-site practice session on Monday.
But on Tuesday, Williams provided some answers, even dispelling much of the doubt with an epic comeback victory, 2-6, 6-3, 13-11.
“I got fired up a little bit behind me,” Williams said on court after the second-set turnaround victory. “I needed that.”
Williams showed signs of rust early, and his unfamiliarity with Jabeur showed. Sorribes Tormo and Bouzkova took advantage and scrambled to take an early lead. While there were some moments of classic Serena greatness, including a commanding overhand shot, met, of course, by thunderous applause, it seemed for most of the first set as if the eagerly awaited run from Williams and Jabeur in Eastbourne outside a brief one.
— wta (@WTA) June 21, 2022
But neither Williams nor Jabeur were ready to go down without a fight. Williams’ movements became sharper, his ball-striking became sharper, and his confidence (and trademark intensity) increased with every point gained. By the end of the second set, Williams was everywhere on the court and rushing every ball like the match depended on it.
— wta (@WTA) June 21, 2022
Williams hadn’t played doubles since Auckland in 2020, and last played a competitive match at Wimbledon in 2021. She had arrived at the All England Club last summer as favourite, but suffered a devastating torn hamstring in the first set. of his first match and was forced to retire in tears. Her once-promising tournament run and quest for her elusive 24th Grand Slam title lasted just 34 minutes.
He released statements about his retirement ahead of the US Open and Australian Open, citing his health. And then there was silence. The French Open came and went, and she didn’t say anything about it. When the initial Wimbledon ticket list was published, she was nowhere to be found. She grew speculation about her imminent retirement.
“If I ever get fired, I wouldn’t tell anyone,” he had said in Melbourne in 2021 and it seemed that was exactly what happened.
But it turns out it wasn’t over yet. Last week, it was revealed that she had been given a wild card to play at Wimbledon and that he would play in the doubles draw at Eastbourne.
Williams selected Jabeur to be her partner, something Jabeur called an “honor” and said had been in the works since before the French Open, and that seemed like it could be a passing of the torch from one trailblazer to another.
Jabeur, who climbed to a career-high ranking of No. 3 this week after winning the title in Berlin, owns a host of “firsts” for players from her home country of Tunisia, as well as Arab and Africans. Already the highest ranked Arab player of all time, she is now also tied for the highest ranked African player of all time.
While Williams’ time in the sport isn’t over, even she can’t play forever. But in a player like Jabeur, who is paving the way for so many aspiring young players, Williams’ inclusive legacy will live on.
The couple were seen smiling and laughing on the court, even during the most tense moments of the match. Both reacted to each other’s shot-making prowess with meme-worthy expressive facial expressions and were seen giving high-fives and words of support after nearly every point.
“It was a lot of fun,” Jabeur said after the match. “I was a little nervous before, playing with a legend like that, but she did me really well on the court. Even when I made mistakes, she encouraged me, so thank you.” [Serena] For that.”
“Of course,” Williams said. “We have this.”
The duo will face Shuko Aoyama and Chan Hao-ching on Wednesday with a spot in the semifinals on the line. Despite her success and the contagious vertigo after the win, Williams was noncommittal when asked if she and Jabeur would play together at Wimbledon. She perhaps summed up her general attitude entering the tournament with her response:
“One day at a time,” he said. “One day at a time”.