Serena Williams, Closer to the End Than the Middle, Still Believes

WIMBLEDON, England — Most likely, it was not truly the end. Chances are there will be some more tennis, maybe even another major tournament at the end of the summer.

It is long past the beginning of the end.

What happened at Wimbledon though, where Harmony Tan of France beat Serena Williams in a third-set tiebreaker at the tournament she had won seven times, signaled the end of the Serena Williams that the world, both within tennis and outside it, has known.

For the better part of two decades, Williams dominated her sport unlike anyone else. She won 23 Grand Slam singles titles — the most recent, the Australian Open in 2017, when she was pregnant — and she has won nearly $100 million in prize money.

She transcended tennis as a dominant cultural figure, informing debates on gender, race and celebrity. She became a successful businesswoman and a mother. On Tuesday, she was a player trying to gut out a victory against a relatively unknown competitor nearly half her age.

When people would describe Williams as perhaps the greatest female tennis player ever, she would say, “tennis player,” to suggest that she should be compared to Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Few argued with her.

The memory of that Serena Williams, now 40 years old and ranked 1,204th in singles, has remained alive for a year and half, ever since she lost definitively, decisively, but still fighting with her signature mix of power, grit and mystique against Naomi Osaka in the semifinals of the 2021 Australian Open. Conventional wisdom held that in the right tournament — say, Wimbledon — with the right draw, she could be that Serena Williams once again.

She had struggled with an Achilles’ tendon injury ahead of that tournament anyway. Her fourth-round loss at the French Open to Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan came on the slow, red clay at the French Open, a surface she never cared for much. She had not won a title in Paris since 2015.

Then came the hamstring tear five minutes into her opening match at Wimbledon a year ago, a freak injury.

Williams had won a Grand Slam tournament during her first trimester of pregnancy. Some of the most dominant tennis anyone has ever played came after she nearly died from a hematoma and pulmonary embolism.

Four times she had been a match away from winning a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title, though she long ago ended any debate about whether she was the greatest ever. That elite serve and forehand, her fist-pumps, her glare, the visceral screams that come out in a way that both inspire and terrify, all of it was still there, wasn’t it, there for her to summon when her health and the planets aligned, even after 11 months away from the game?

Williams after winning a point against Harmony Tan.Credit…Alberto Pezzali/Associated Press

Perhaps that Serena Williams will appear once more. But Tuesday did not provide many hints that it would. The Williams that her fellow players, so many of them so much younger, speak of with awe and inspiration, is now more of an idea than an actual opponent.

“If I can win one or two games that would be really good,” Tan said of her mind-set before the match, her first at Wimbledon.

For certain stretches on Tuesday evening, the Williams of old appeared on Centre Court. She used her forehand to dictate parts of the match, and chased balls with the footwork of yesteryear. A feathery drop shot late in the third set showed the touch that appears infrequently now.

But too often Williams looked every bit her 40 years. She had to lean on her racket to catch her breath after so many points. She hunted for the inner assassin she once summoned without notice. Williams was once so clinical against an overmatched, inexperienced opponent like Tan. That Williams is no more.

That, of course, is just the tennis side of it.

The Serena Williams of the past two decades has been so much more than a gifted athlete who knew what to do with 11 ounces of carbon fiber in her right hand. Even during the long periods when the rankings did not have a the No. 1 next to her name, she defined and set the bar for her sport, and for women’s sports more broadly.

She was Muhammad Ali in the 1960s and 1970s, Tiger Woods of the past quarter century, a one-name brand who graced the covers of sports, fashion and newsmagazines with an overall income somewhere in the mid-eight figures.

“Changing the game was not something I set out to do, but somehow I did it,” Williams said late Tuesday night.

That part of the Williams persona, the trailblazer, trendsetter, the voice that can say so much with few words, will go on, with new wrinkles. In addition to her usual slew of sponsors, Williams announced earlier this year that her early-stage venture capital firm, Serena Ventures, has raised an inaugural fund of $111 million to invest in founders with diverse points of view and backgrounds.

Her fund has already financed 60 companies that include Sendwave, a money transfer app; MasterClass, which offers online lessons in several topics; and Daily Harvest, a food delivery service. The fund’s limited partners include some of the biggest names in tech finance. “King Richard,” the movie based on her father that she helped produce, won Will Smith an Oscar for best actor this year.

The other side though, the tennis side that started it all, a force as reliable as the heat in Australia and the cool, late summer nights of the U.S. Open, has fallen victim to what eventually overtakes all of the greatest. Ted Williams and Michael Jordan ultimately fell to the relentlessness of time, and the power of rising youth. Williams must, too, just as she did against Tan, a part of a deeper-than-ever WTA Tour where anyone can beat, or lose, to anyone else.

Williams once summoned power without notice, but must now settle for flashes of it.Credit…Glyn Kirk/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Few want to see Williams decline, even those who have lost to her more than they have won.

“I think it’s great that we have her back,” said Maria Sakkari of Greece, who called Williams a great role model. “For me she’s the best female athlete — not tennis player — athlete in the Open era.”

“Great that she’s trying to come back,” said Nadal, who has 22 Grand Slam singles titles, one fewer than Williams.

Like Williams, he has battled back from potentially career-ending injuries of late. He is nearly five years younger than Williams, but is one of the few people who can understand what is going through Williams’s heart and mind.

“The only thing that shows is passion and love for the game,” Nadal said of her comeback attempt. “Just being here shows that she has a lot of love for her work and for this game. And I think that’s a great example.”

There were flashbacks on Tuesday. Williams surged to an early lead in the deciding set, then minutes later, she was fighting, down a game, though on serve, against the 115th-ranked player in the world, a 24-year-old who grew up watching her on television. Williams even served for the match after more than two and a half hours on the court, at 5-4. Serving comes from the legs, and Williams’s legs had lost their power. She sprayed errors wide and into the net, suddenly unable to handle Tan’s slicing strokes.

She would save a match point on her serve two games later with a classic swinging forehand volley as she charged the net. But in the tiebreaker, she frittered away prosperity once more, allowing a 4-0 lead to become a 9-7 deficit. Then came one last forehand into the net at the 3-hour, 11-minute mark.

Williams packed up her bags, waved to the crowd, and then, in an interview room a little while later, said the idea of playing in New York at the U.S. Open later in the summer, after some time on the practice courts, carried plenty of appeal. She, at least, still believes. Retirement, for now, did not come up.

“It’s actually kind of like, ‘OK, Serena, you can do this if you want,’” she said. “Lots of motivation to get better and to play at home.”

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