Serena Williams' energetic return to Centre Court after a year away from the game was a brave effort, and one worthy of her legendBy Jun 29, 2022
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Serena Williams' energetic return to Centre Court after a year away from the game was a brave effort, and one worthy of her legend
Few in the 100-year history of tennis' most famous arena have brought the mix of tension and theater to that arena that Serena has.
Published Jun 29, 2022
HIGHLIGHTS: The Serena Williams vs. Harmony Tan marathon
Centre Court, the most famous arena in tennis, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and it has been getting its proper historical due. Here, over the fortnight before The Fortnight, we looked back at 10 historically significant matches that have been played there since its 1922 inception. (You can read them all by continuing to scroll down after this story.)
Serena Williams’ three-set, three-hour loss to Harmony Tan on Tuesday probably won’t rank among those classics. Williams was hardly at her best against the 115th-ranked player in the world, and she doesn’t seem to think it will be the last time we’ll see her play, either.
“Who knows where I’ll pop up?” she said afterward.
That seems to be what her career will be like from now on; long stretches away from the tour, broken up by a surprise visit at a Grand Slam event. If you’re holding out hope that Serena can someday win that elusive 24th major, this defeat wasn’t promising. But when an athlete turns 40, as Serena did last year, it’s hard to ask for much more.
Yet Williams-Tan was a piece of sporting theater to remember and savor. It was analogous to Rod Laver’s final appearance on the same court, a month short of his 39th birthday, in 1977. The four-time champion hadn’t played at Wimbledon since 1971, and hadn’t played any of the majors in two years. But he returned, along with a cavalcade of legends, for the tournament’s 100th-anniversary celebration, and stuck around until the second round, when he was eliminated in four sets by Dick Stockton on Centre Court. The week that Laver made his exit, one of his disciples and fellow lefties, 18-year-old John McEnroe, made his Wimbledon debut.
Serena hit 61 winners and made 54 errors against Tan. She started slowly, which is traditional with her; and she couldn’t close, which is not traditional with her.
“I think the last couple points, I was really suffering there,” Serena said with a smile. “I didn’t practice for, you know, a three-hour match. I guess that’s where I went wrong.”
I was still amazed by the nerve it took for her to make her debut on Centre Court, where the world is your audience.
In between the start and finish, though, she was better than I expected. That may be because I had no idea what to expect. Serena hadn’t played a singles match since she slipped on the same court 12 months earlier. She hadn’t even hinted at a return until a few weeks before Wimbledon began. She’s also going to be 41 in September. Considering all of those facts, I had trouble imagining how she would do, or what her game would look like, when she came back.
Like a lot of recreational tennis players during the pandemic, I stayed away from the courts for close to a year. When I finally started playing again, I spent at least a month just relearning how to move well enough to cover the entire baseline—nothing came easily, or quickly. So even though I was aware that Serena fears nothing on a tennis court, I was still amazed by the nerve it took for her to make her debut on Centre Court, where the world is your audience.
For the first two games of her match against Tan on Tuesday, I wondered if Serena had finally overreached. She couldn’t keep the ball inside the lines; worse, she was lacking her usual explosiveness around the court. Then, by the third or fourth game, she had willed both of those things—her range and her speed—back into existence. From that point until the very end, when nerves seemed to get the better of her, Serena was remarkably like…Serena, from her T serve, to her crosscourt forehand return, to her spiking swing volleys, to her self-motivating screams. She dug out some drop shots and low volleys that even seemed to surprise her, and she celebrated in classic, no-holds-barred Serena style.
“It definitely makes me want to hit the practice courts because, you know, when you’re playing not bad and you’re so close,” she said. “Any other opponent probably would have suited my game better.
“So, yeah, I feel like that it’s actually kind of like, ‘OK, Serena, you can do this if you want.’”
Will she want? Probably not on a regular basis, or enough to get in the kind of shape, physically and mentally, that she needs to win singles major No. 24. But while a first-round loss can’t be equated to a Grand Slam win, this was an effort worthy of her legend and status. She didn’t raise her level when she needed to, like she has so many times before. But in this case just walking out on court took guts. It took the kind of self-confidence that made her the player she was, and still is.
Few in the 100-year history of Centre Court have brought the mix of tension and theater to that arena that Serena has. For three hours on Tuesday, she brought it back.