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With her right knee knelt and left fist clenched, the power, poise and aura of Serena Williams returned to Wimbledon, only for it to be broken by a spellbinding performance from the virtually unknown Harmony Tan. With one remarkable comeback already complete, it would take an extraordinary effort to deny Williams, on a scarcely believable late-night thriller under the lights on Centre Court.
The scene was set for Williams, the script written too. It had been 364 days since she had painfully departed Centre Court, forced to retire from her first-round match after tearing her hamstring against Aliaksandra Sasnovich. The emergence on Tuesday evening out from under the royal box was the moment she had been building towards since. and after battling from a set down to lead 5-4 in the decider, the circle was close to closing.
But as one star appears to fade, another was born in the unheralded Tan, ranked 115th in the world, who displayed stunning tenacity and resilience to defy the baying crowds. The 24-year-old from France was more than just a brick wall as she answered Williams’ growing power, producing flashing winners on both sides to break Williams and force the deciding tie-break.
Williams, after a slow and rusty start, had reached a formidable level. Despite her year-long absence from the game, the ball pinged off her racket in the same way that few players have been able to produce in the history of the sport. With the overheads and forehand winners, Williams was back on the grand slam stage every bit the 23-time champion, rather than the 40-year-old fighting against the dying of the light, and a smash resulted in her taking what on another day could have been an iconic finishing pose.
It puts Tan’s performance on an even higher plane. “I was scared when I was on the court,” she admitted after, at complete odds of the bravery of her display and the manner at which she took Williams on stride for stride. Williams did not wane physically, despite her complete lack of matches. She did question her own mental execution at key points and although Williams turns 41 in September, she insisted she would be motivated by ensuring this is the start of another chapter of her career, rather than the end.
This remains a spectacular return. The two weeks since the news of Williams receiving a wildcard for the singles draw had softened the shock of her unexpected comeback. There had been the doubles warm-up alongside Ons Jabeur at Eastbourne, but there was no indication that a contest of this unexpected drama would break out on the final match of the day on Centre Court.
For a while it seemed there would be no end, and in previous years this match would have extended past the final-set tie-break. The tension was enhanced by the dash to 10 points, the Centre Court crowd erupting as Williams raced to a 4-0 lead. It was almost time to begin wondering where victory would stand amongst her seven titles at the All England Club. Tan would have other ideas as she took her place in Wimbledon folklore. The first comeback from Williams had been remarkable, the second will have to remain a question to be answered for another year - as long as one remains.