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Serena Williams’s last Wimbledon was not her last Wimbledon

Serena Williams ranks No. 1,204, making her probably the best No. 1,204-ranked player in sports history. (Neil Hall/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

WIMBLEDON, England — The formidable soul walking through the door and up the steps to the dais in the elegant Wimbledon interview room Saturday did turn out to be Serena Williams, a name that might ring a bell and a presence that can make a Wimbledon feel more complete. It turns out she sort of couldn’t bear the thought of last Wimbledon being her last Wimbledon.

“It was a lot of motivation, to be honest,” she said of her truncated 2021 Wimbledon, when she opened one match on Centre Court, played to a 3-3 score in a first set with Aliaksandra Sasnovich, then lost her footing, felt her right leg buckle and departed in various forms of pain. “You know, she’s a great champion, and it’s a sad story,” Sasnovich said that day, her own father having told her he had long dreamed she might oppose Williams on Centre Court.

The remainder of that Wimbledon — plus the long grind of the three majors since — went without Williams, leaving minds both nosy and rational to sense impending retirement. Yet all along, that wretched match No. 111 of a 23-year Wimbledon career just would not do for a finale and “was always something that, since that match ended, it was always on my mind,” Williams said, and something that “absolutely” provided a push through workout drudgery. Here, then, comes match No. 112 and 24 years in the first round Tuesday against Harmony Tan, a 24-year-old Frenchwoman ranked 113th.

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Williams ranks 1,204th, making her probably the best 1,204th-ranked player in sports history. She once won an Australian Open (2007) from a ranking of 81. In doubles with Ons Jabeur at Eastbourne this past week and in practice, she said: “I felt more prepared than I thought I would, like, a month ago or two months ago or three months ago. Way more.”

She had strained last summer to make the 2021 U.S. Open, she said, but her hamstring protested, and there came a point of realization “that I’m not going to make it,” so she “hung up my rackets” and called it “a tough injury to have.” (“It was no fun,” she said.) So across ensuing months: “I don’t know,” she said. “I didn’t retire. I just needed to heal physically, mentally, and yeah, I had no plans, to be honest. I didn’t know when I would come back, didn’t know how I would come back, and obviously Wimbledon is such a great place to be, and it just worked out.”

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Unwilling to close her Wimbledon career in excruciation with a match record of 98-13, seven titles and four finalist appearances, she’s back at age 40, back at singles tennis for the first time since that dreary 3-3 and back sounding rather like Tiger Woods at the Masters and PGA Championship when that fellow star assessed whether he found himself capable of winning.

(Note: He did.)

“You know the answer to that,” Williams said to a question about what might constitute a good outcome here.

To a sprinkle of laughter in the room, she added, “Come on, now.”

She said: “I have high goals, but also, we’ll see. I’m not going to answer that.”

She deployed that right not to answer concerning two issues, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision of Friday, and the All England Club’s decision of April barring Russian and Belarusian players from participation this year because of the invasion of Ukraine. On Roe v. Wade, she said: “Yeah, I think that’s a very interesting question. I don’t have any thoughts that I’m ready to share on that decision.” On Ukraine, she said, “Another heavy subject that involves a tremendous amount of politics, from what I understand, and government, and I’m going to step away from that.”

She spoke fondly of multiple matters: her year pretty much out of the game, her amazement at having a movie she helped produce (“King Richard”) nominated for the Academy Award for best picture, her commitment to her work as an investor. “It’s been totally different, honestly,” she said. “A part of me feels like that’s a little bit more of my life now than tournaments,” and she laughed slightly at that.

“When you do have a venture company, you do have to go all in, and it definitely takes literally all my extra time,” she said. “And it’s fun. I’m currently out of the office the next few weeks. If you email me, you’ll get the ‘out-of-office’ ” notification, she said with air quotes. “I absolutely love what I do. I love investing in companies. And then the Oscars was really fun, just the whole tour, the whole tour of that whole moment was incredible to be a part of such an amazing movie. [It] was something that I just — you don’t think about. At best, you think of winning Grand Slams, not being nominated for an Oscar for a film that you produced, so it was pretty awesome.”

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To the question about mental health, she looks at her own longevity, which she attributes by now to her judiciousness in her numbers of tournaments way back when. “There’s often times that I think, subconsciously, I take breaks,” she said. “I never played as much as the next player throughout my whole career. And I think that was all subconscious, me taking care of myself and knowing how to take care of myself. And a lot of people have to learn that, and I think that was something that my parents built into me, like, it was already programmed in me, and so it was just something that I always naturally did.”

Now she’s 40 and she’s here, and as French Open finalist Coco Gauff put it Saturday, “I think whenever she’s in a tournament, she’s always a contender to win even if she hasn’t played in a year.” Then from here, Williams said: “Who knows where I’ll pop up next? You’ve got to be ready.”

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Wimbledon women: French Open finalists Iga Swiatek and Coco Gauff fell on a rough day for top women at the All England Club. Also, mixed doubles at dusk brings out Venus in twilight.

Serena’s return and exit: Serena Williams’s Wimbledon return lasted just one tortuous match. The revered champion received a wild-card entry to to seek a 24th Grand Slam title after a year-long competitive hiatus.

The war in Ukraine: As the tournament gets underway, Wimbledon’s Russia and Belarus ban leaves 16 of the top 100 on the outside. Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine spoke at length about the upended state of her mind, and said the absence of Russian and Belarusian players here had lent that mind some calm. Tsurenko beat fellow Ukrainian Anhelina Kalinina in the second round.

Wimbledon starts: The season’s third Grand Slam returns in full with big crowds, roars and a little rain. Everything you need to know as the world’s longest-running tennis tournament kicks off on the grass courts of the All England Club.

French Open: Rafael Nadal steamrolled Casper Ruud to win his 14th French Open championship and extend his men’s record number of Grand Slam titles to 22. World No. 1 Iga Swiatek raced to a 6-1, 6-3 victory over Coco Gauff in 68 minutes to claim her second Grand Slam.

On the court: Tennis has an anger-management problem, and it’s getting worse.

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