WIMBLEDON, England — The revered champion craving a treasured memory kept nearing the finish line Tuesday night, but the damned line kept moving back. It moved back after Serena Williams served up 4-2 in the first set. It moved back after she led 3-1 in the third. It moved back after she served for the match at 5-4 in the third set and after she led 4-0 in the newfangled 10-point tiebreaker that decides things around here nowadays.
It moved back through a roaring donnybrook of an English night until she never did find it somehow, until she fell to 24-year-old Parisian Harmony Tan, 7-5, 1-6, 7-6 (10-7), until she exited at 10:36 p.m. to another booming cheer from an All England Club crowd that had spent the evening adoring and imploring her 40-year-old self, and until a crowd that had to wonder whether her left turn off the court and out of sight might have been her last.
“That’s a question I can’t answer,” she said 25 minutes later in the interview room. “I don’t know. I feel like, you know, I don’t know. Who knows? Who knows where I’ll pop up?”
She figured to pop up for some rest at first, after a first-round match became a first-rate saga — a twisting, turning beast that scraped for 3 hours 11 minutes, through the closing of the Centre Court roof one set in and from the twilight to the typically tardy darkness of the 51st parallel north. It pushed on through 243 points that often showcased Williams’s current rustiness (54 unforced errors), her everlasting brilliance (61 winners) and her long-familiar fight (a saved match point at 5-6 in the third set through an aggressive charge to a short ball for a crushing winner of a half-volley).
“Physically, I was fine,” she said. “Last couple of points I really started to feel it. But I’m moving well, getting a lot of balls back. I’m moving well in practice as well. That wasn’t surprising for me, because I knew I was doing that well. I didn’t practice for, you know, a three-hour match, so I guess that’s where I went wrong.”
In playing this Wimbledon after a 12-month layoff with a torn hamstring, Williams had hoped to replace the bummer memory from last year at 39 — a first-round retirement with injury six games in — with something more befitting a seven-time victor and 23-time major champion. She hoped to go 1-0 in her 40s, a decade she reached way back in September. Instead, the finish line found a woman who played her first Wimbledon, who played her seventh Grand Slam tournament, who improved her match record in majors to 3-6 and reduced Williams’s to 365-55.
It became the night of the daughter of Cambodian-French and Vietnamese-French parents, a player ranked No. 115 and coached by 1998 Wimbledon finalist Nathalie Tauziat, a 54-year-old sage who played Williams thrice (winning once). And it became the night of a young woman who couldn’t describe how she felt when Williams’s last low forehand plunked into the net because, Tan said: “I don’t know because I don’t believe now. I don’t believe.”
Disbelief can prevail when, as Tan put it: “It’s a dream because, you know, I saw Serena on the TV when I was young. … She’s a legend. I mean, she won 23 Grand Slams. When you play her, I was scared. I mean, I was scared when I was on the court but really happy to be there.”
They walked out together at a little after 7. A full Centre Court crowd had just feted Rafael Nadal, as it will, and had thinned out as patrons may have sought certain beverages. A depleted crowd that would fill to about two-thirds over the ensuing hours prepared for a tennis ritual, the curious way fans hunger for the sustenance of the greats and thirst for the blood of the underdogs. There seemed every possibility as to how Williams might fare.
As it got going, it got awkward. Williams opened with an 86-mph serve and spent two games playing the kind of skittish tennis one might expect from one who had not played a competitive singles match in a year. The fans, many with a comprehension of the aging process, seemed to extend toward Williams something never required for one of the greatest champions in any sport: empathy.
“I love you, Serena!” hollered one.
“Come on, Serena!” hollered more than several.
Then they started extending roars, because vestiges of old times started popping up in her game. Her groundstrokes got molten and her overheads got masterful, even as her opponent got busy with an ancient tactic: When playing someone with 40-year-old legs, pepper the court with drop shots.
Tan chipped. She sliced. She drop-shotted until that tactic grew routine for the crowd. She forced Williams to create pace and to create shots — even drop shots sometimes — which often led Williams to create the old guttural screams that help her drag out her inner Serena Williams. Tan sometimes banged backhands up the line and drew applause from Williams.
When Tan broke Williams at 4-2 after trailing 40-15 and after gaining four break points, and when she broke her again at 5-5, and when she ripped a cross-court forehand by Williams to clinch the first set, duration loomed. Duration came in a behemoth of a game, the second game of the second set, with its 12 deuces, its 30 points and its Williams win that seemed to propel her.
Then they got to Williams serving at 3-1 in the third, but she lost that at 15 with Tan’s backhand pass that drew a big gasp. They got to Williams serving at 5-4 — 2 hours 39 minutes into the match — a roar carrying her from her seat to the baseline, but Tan broke that at 30, another backhand searing by.
Then they got to the 10-point tiebreaker, only the second of this tournament, and Williams got to 4-0 before Tan plotted her way back to lead 5-4. It went to 6-6. Tan led 8-7. “I think the last couple of points I was really suffering there,” Williams said, and she drove a short ball wide and a low ball into the net, both with forehands, sending Tan into shock and a humongous smile.
“Definitely better than last year,” Williams said of replacing the memory. But had this memory proved okay, for all its love and its fight?
“Obviously not,” she said. “You know me. Definitely not.”
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