Serena Williams’ hopes of a victorious return to Wimbledon after a year out ended with a loss to Harmony Tan.
The American great, 40, returned to the same Centre Court where she had limped out injured last year with a passionate display in a 7-5 1-6 7-6 (10-7) defeat.
Willed on by a fervent crowd, Williams answered questions over her fitness with a dynamic display that put her two points from a win before Tan edged it.
The burning question now is surely ‘was this her last Wimbledon’?
“That’s a question I can’t answer,” she told a news conference. “I don’t know.
It is almost a year to the day since Williams limped tearfully off Centre Court after slipping and hurting her right ankle in her first-round match against Aliaksandra Sasnovich.
The crowd that day might have wondered if they would ever see the American great back at the grass-court Grand Slam, with age and injury against her.
Even she herself admitted while at Eastbourne this month – where she made her comeback in the doubles alongside Ons Jabeur – that she had harboured her own doubts.
But Williams walked on to the same court, where she has won seven of her 23 Grand Slam singles titles, to a rousing reception.
Now ranked 1,204th in the world, she had needed to request a wildcard to enter the draw.
And she soon showed why she was never going to be turned down.
Shaking off a slightly rusty start in which she was broken by the Wimbledon debutant in the first game, Williams found her feet – and her voice – as she roared when a smash sealed a break back.
The pair traded further breaks, with Williams hitting balls on the run, moving much better than a year out of the sport might have suggested, and delivering some of the trademark powerful shots that have made her one of her sport’s all-time greats.
But a break for Tan in the 11th game left the Frenchwoman serving for the set, which she sealed with a forehand winner.
Such was the excitement at times during some lengthy and high quality points that the umpire even had to remind the packed Centre Court: “I know it’s very exciting but as a courtesy to both players please be quiet during the rallies.”
And that was before the roof went on before the start of the second set to raise the decibel level further.
Williams held quickly to love and then broke in a near 20-minute second game, which featured 12 deuces, on her way to a 5-0 lead. Tan, 24, earned a morale-boosting hold before Williams served out to take it to a deciding set.
The American, whose only matches in the past year were last week’s two doubles, broke early in the third but tenacious Tan soon pegged her back.
Williams had celebrated as if she had won the match when she broke for 5-4 in the decider but it proved premature when, having led 30-15 while serving for the match, she was broken again.
Williams forged a 4-0 lead in the final-set tie-break but it slipped away as Tan delivered some stunning winners and the American netted a forehand on match point.