WIMBLEDON, England — This was Serena Williams’ 21st time playing at Wimbledon. It was the first time for Harmony Tan, but Tan will be the player heading into the second round at the All England Club.
Tan, a The Frenchwoman ranked 115th and unknown even in her country, beat Williams, the greatest female tennis champion of her time, 7-5, 1-6, 7-6 (10-7). Williams hadn’t played a singles match on tour since retiring in the first round from Wimbledon last year in tears with a hamstring injury, but she was able to play plenty of tennis on Tuesday night on center court where she had won seven singles titles at Wimbledon. His grueling duel with Tan was a stylistic contrast that lasted 3 hours and 11 minutes. What Williams lacked was the upbeat and reaffirming finish, and she didn’t hesitate when asked if she was okay with it being her last Wimbledon memory if that was how it was. happened.
“Of course not. You know me. Definitely not,” Williams, 40, said. “But today I gave everything I could do, you know, today. Maybe tomorrow I could have given more. Maybe a week ago I could have given more. But today was what I could do. At some point, you have to be able to agree with that. And that’s all I can do. I can’t change the time or anything.
She managed to turn the tide on Tuesday in a game that was played in the open for the first set and then covered the rest of the way after the roof closed to provide the stadium lighting needed to continue. Williams dominated the second set but Tan fought back in the third as Williams’ level and energy dropped even though his fighting spirit did not.
Although she saved a match point on her serve late in the last set and took a 4-0 lead in the super tiebreaker, which is new to Wimbledon this year, she couldn’t hold on, missing too many crucial shots, including a forehand in the net on Tan’s second match point.
“I think physically I did pretty well,” Williams said. “I think the last two points, I was really suffering there, but I feel like in those key points, winning some of those points, it’s always something you have to have mentally, which you have somehow need. I did pretty well on maybe one or two of them, but obviously not enough.
Tan’s lucid poise under the pressure of big games was remarkable for a player with so little experience making her first appearance on center court. But she said she had to fight within herself to believe she could truly defeat Williams.
“When I saw the draw, I was really scared, because it’s Serena,” Tan, 24, said. “He’s a legend, and yeah, I was like, ‘Oh my God, how can I play?’ If I can win one or two games, that was really good for me.
She won two sets instead, turning what could have been a feel-good story for Williams into a narrow loss that will raise the question of how much professional tennis Williams intends to play. She turns 41 in September, and her quest for a record 24th Grand Slam singles title looks increasingly far-fetched. A longtime No. 1, she is now ranked 1,204th and will soon have no rankings at all. But she offered no definitive answer as to whether this was her final Wimbledon appearance.
“That’s a question I can’t answer,” she said. “I don’t know. Who knows where I will appear?”
But at least she can leave the All England Club with a less painful memory than what she took from Wimbledon last year, when she tore a hamstring after slipping in the first set of her first-round match with Aliaksandra Sasnovich, hobbling on center court in great distress. She did not play competitively again until last week when she returned to play doubles in Eastbourne, England with Ons Jabeur. Tuesday’s match against Tan was Williams’ first singles match in a year, and to her credit, she gave up and hustled through peaks and valleys.
“It was definitely a long, very long battle and a fight and definitely better than last year,” Williams said.
It was a spotty but ultimately admirable performance as she tried to shake off the rust and solve the myriad puzzles posed by Tan, who had only watched Williams from afar until their duel. “Seeing her next to me before stepping onto the pitch was really intimidating, because she’s so imposing,” Tan said in French. “It was difficult and even at the end, when we shook hands, it was still imposing.”
“When I was young, I watched it so many times on TV,” she said during her on-court interview. “My first Wimbledon is wow!”
That Williams came close to victory was more a tribute to her willpower than her power as she failed to dominate with her first serve or full returns and instead fought through extended rallies and compromised situations in the third set, digging low for Tan’s slashes and jostling in the corners. Williams served for the match at 5-4 and was two points away from victory at 30-15 only to lose the next three points and her serve when she hit an unconvincing forehand approach shot that Tan the slapped for a backhand winner.
Williams and his player box full of family, friends and team members, including his new coach Eric Hechtman, were unable to celebrate. She fought a match point by serving at 5-6, 30-40 with a forehand volley winner. She then had to navigate the tiebreaker despite her tired legs and strained gaze. She took a 4-0 lead before Tan grabbed the next five points keeping Williams off balance.
Tan, coached by 1998 Wimbledon runner-up Nathalie Tauziat, lacks pure power and has a puffball second serve, but she understands tennis geometry and has an unconventional tool set well suited to the grass. She also had a good scouting report: Tauziat is 54 and long retired, but she faced Williams three times in singles, beating her in the final of an indoor tournament in Paris in 2000 on a surface fast and low bounce. Tauziat understood the importance of keeping Williams out of her main strike zones and keeping her moving.
“Thank you, Nathalie,” Tan said during his on-court interview, looking towards Tauziat in the players’ box.
From the start, Tan asked Williams to guess and stretch, mixing often exquisite drop shots with net forays; towering lobs with counter-striked backhand shots; side-sweep forehand slices with looping topspin.
“Any other opponent would probably have suited my game better,” said Williams, who has rarely been able to settle into powerbase duels or any particular game pattern for long.
No one but Tan knew what was about to happen. Williams, who lost to such variety-loving players even in her prime, often seemed confused at first. She also looked as tight as a piano wire, struggling to let her natural power flow and missing swing volleys and approach shots by the peloton while struggling to move sideways.
It was certainly understandable in light of his long layoff, and the crowd initially reacted with awkward silence. The great tennis theater where Williams has experienced so many ups and downs over the decades was almost half empty at first, but as the match turned into a marathon it was filled with support and emotion as Williams tried to avoid only the third first-round exit of his career in a Grand Slam tournament.
She wasn’t quite making it, despite all her obvious desire, and there may not be many more majors to come, although Williams hasn’t ruled out a return to the US Open, where she won her first Grand Slam singles title in 1999 at age 17.
“Your first time is always special,” she said, speaking slowly and softly. “There’s definitely, you know, a lot of motivation to improve and play at home.”
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