Wimbledon 2022: Serena Williams falls short on singles return as Harmony Tan edges Centre Court epic

·4-min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

A day short of a year on from her last singles match, Serena Williams returned to the scene of the crime and suffered more disappointment. The circumstances could not have been more different.

The American managed just six games 12 months ago, before she was forced to retire from her opening match after a nasty slip on Centre Court. It was one of a number of similar incidents, leading to Wimbledon organisers breaking from tradition to allow players to practice on the show courts in the build-up to the tournament.

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This time it was three hour and ten minutes of brilliance, chaos, exhaustion and ultimately dispair for the seven-time Wimbledon champion. Harmony Tan, in her first ever main-draw match at SW19, came through a truly astonishing encounter 7-5 1-6 7-6 (10-7).

Williams had at least some grass-court practice in the lead-up to her singles return, teaming up with Ons Jabeur for two matches in the doubles at Eastbourne a week ago. That would have helped blow some of the cobwebs off but plenty evidently remained as the American was swiftly broken in the opening game of the match.

It was back on serve though before long as Williams warmed into her work and she threatened to run away with it. A year ago the sixth game was as far it got for Williams but this time it brought a break of the Tan serve and a 4-2 lead.

The American swiftly found her own serve under pressure and Tan levelled things up, before finding another break of serve to lead 6-5. She served for the set and, after seeing off a break point, sealed it with a sublime forehand winner.

An extraordinary second game of the second set took on an increasing importance with every deuce that passed. There were 12 of them in all, across almost 20 minutes, before the seventh time proved to be a charm for Williams as she finally converted a break point.

Four of them then came and went for Tan as she missed the chance to break back immediately - a game that went to deuce only three times felt like it was robbing the Centre Court crowd of action.

Tan’s inability to find the break proved even more costly when Williams had no such problems and she then held to lead 5-0 in the set. Rarely, if ever, has a scoreline ever been so misleading. There was at least the consolation of avoiding a bagel for Tan, but nothing more than that as Williams levelled things up with a big serve out wide. Barely a flicker of emotion from the American followed, as she marched to her chair.

Nor was there much of a reaction when Williams broke in the third game of the decider, though whether that was due to pure focus or just sheer exhaustion only she will know. Perhaps she sensed what was to come. Tan sent an incredulous look up to her box as she restored parity, stunned herself at the part she was playing in a Centre Court epic.

There wild celebrations as Williams broke to then serve for the match (AFP via Getty Images)
There wild celebrations as Williams broke to then serve for the match (AFP via Getty Images)

The cliches started to write themselves when Tan was unable to hold serve and fell 5-4 behind - the nerves had got to her, the champion spirit of Williams had won the day. The American was almost in tears as she stepped up to serve for it.

Tan was not done. The 24-year-old hammered a passing shot past Williams to extend the match further. By this point seconds serves were barely troubling the speed gun, stunning winners met by little more than an extra gasp for air. Williams saved a match point and dragged herself, and the Centre Court crowd with her, into a tie-break.

Again the script looked set as Williams moved 4-0 up, but by now the tank was beyond empty and the American could hold off the warning lights no more. The unforced errors started to flow and Tan reeled off five straight points. She moved 9-7 up and dispatched a forehand winner, in every sense of the word.

Who knows what comes next for Williams, but if it is to be her last Wimbledon appearance then she has gone out with anything but a whimper.

“It was definitely something that’s always been on the top of my mind,” she said pre-tournament, when asked if being forced to retire last year was motivation for coming back.

That was her second ever exit in the first round of a Grand Slam, this only her third, and while an enthralling encounter against the world number 115 is perhaps reflective of her current standard after so long away, Williams will surely roll the dice on a more appealing final curtain.