Serena Williams’ return to singles after a year’s absence ended in a dramatic 5-7, 6-1, 6-7 (7-10) first-round loss to France’s Harmony Tan at Wimbledon.
Williams, watched by her family in the stands, lost a close first set before leveling the match in the second on Center Court, the site of seven of her 23 Grand Slam singles titles.
She was a split in the third but Tan showed her resilience by fighting back to win a thrilling final set in a nerve-wracking tie-break.
When asked if it’s the last singles game of her long, illustrious career, Williams said it’s a question she “can’t answer.”
“Who knows where I’ll show up?” she added.
Williams played their first competitive matches in almost a year at Eastbourne last week, working in doubles with Ons Jabeur. The pair reached the semifinals but were forced to withdraw after Jabeur sustained a knee injury.
On Tuesday, she made her long-awaited return to singles, a year after quitting in her last first-round match at Wimbledon.
Over the course of the three hour and 10 minute encounter, momentum switched between the two players – first in favor of Tan as she won the first set, then to Williams as she recovered in the second.
It looked like 40-year-old Williams would prevail in the deciding set as she served to win, but the memorable return was not to be.
Tan broke back 5-5, and although she didn’t convert a match point when the score was 6-5, she didn’t penalize when she had a second chance in the tiebreak.
World No. 115, Tan played in her first match in the main draw at Wimbledon and was ninth in all Grand Slams.
“When I saw the draw, I was really scared,” she said after the game. “It’s Serena Williams – she’s a legend. I was like, ‘Oh my god, how can I play?’ And if I can win a game or two, that’s really good for me.”
Under the lights of Center Court, Tan comfortably did more than that – triumphing against one of the greatest athletes the sport has ever seen.
“For my first Wimbledon – it’s wow. Just wow,” she added, struggling to find the words to capture her emotion.
It remains unclear if this was William’s final appearance at Wimbledon. When asked to summarize her legacy at the tournament, she was succinct, if understated.
“I think I’m pretty solid on the grass,” she said. “Maybe not today, but pretty solid out there.”
Tuesday’s earlier matches on Center Court saw wins for this year’s French Open champions Rafael Nadal and Iga Swiatek.
Nadal, a two-time Wimbledon champion, survived a fear of beating Francisco Cerundolo 6-4, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 as he began his quest for a 23rd Grand Slam title while Swiatek Jana Fett recorded her 36th consecutive win by batting 6-0 6-3.
Nadal, who missed last year’s tournament through injury, received a warm welcome on center court where he was put to the test by Argentina’s Cerundolo.
The Spaniard was looking for a routine victory at 2-0 and a break in the third set, but the free-swinging Cerundolo fought back with a double break to take the set.
The match appeared to be heading for a decider as the world No. 41 broke on the fourth break, only for Nadal to save his best until last and seal the win with a double break.
Swiatek, on the other hand, dominated the first set against Fett in her first match since the French Open, but faced a difficult patch in the second when Fett was close to a double break.
The top seed bounced back from a shaky start to the set and won five straight games, taking their winning streak to 36 games.