First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

The battle of the wilful warrior: will Serena fight bac...

DM168

TENNIS

The battle of the wilful warrior: will Serena fight back after first-round defeat?

Serena Williams of The United States reacts after losing against Harmony Tan of France during their Women's Singles First Round Match on day two of The Championships Wimbledon 2022 at All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 28, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
By Craig Ray
03 Jul 2022 1

Williams’s Wimbledon performance makes her quest for a 24th Grand Slam title look unlikely.

In the space of a few hours this week, it felt like the end of an era and a passing of the torch in women’s tennis.

When winning her first-round match at the 2022 Wimbledon Championships – the season’s third major – world number one Iga Swiatek recorded her 36th straight victory. That number was significant because it took Swiatek past the best winning streak of the 21st century, set by Venus Williams in 2000.

Swiatek’s streak included a commanding romp to the French Open title less than a month ago, which cemented the Pole’s status as the best female player on the planet.

When winning the final at Roland Garros, and recording her 35th straight win, Swiatek surpassed Serena Williams’s 34-match streak of 2013.

Not long after Swiatek’s expected and routine first-round 6-0 6-3 Wimbledon win over Croat Jana Fett, Williams, playing competitively for the first time in more than a year, took to Centre Court.

The 23-time Grand Slam singles winner had admitted she was unsure what to expect after so much time away from the sport through a combination of devoting time to her family and other business interests and most obviously, injury. A torn hamstring on Wimbledon’s Centre Court in 2021 was the last time she had played a competitive singles match before this week.

Sheer sporting drama

What transpired over the next three hours and 11 minutes was sporting drama of the best kind.

Williams, the ageing warrior, for large parts of the match, played well below the ethereal heights of her prime against the unorthodox Harmony Tan. But in occasional slivers and some little montages, Williams showed why she dominated the sport for so many years.

Her sheer will to win, the stubborn refusal to simply give up even when the timing was off, or when Tan’s dropshots and dinks pulled her this way and that, Williams fought. It’s the only way she knows how.

She hit some scorching shots, reminding the sport of her sheer power. She also hit some rank bad shots, reminding the sport that no one is immune to mistakes at the top of tennis.

Serena Williams of The United States plays a backhand during their training session ahead of The Championships Wimbledon 2022 at All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 25, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

In the end though, age, as well as the lack of recent competition and match sharpness, defeated her will. Williams missed some routine backhands that, in years past, would have been sure winners. She moved remarkably well, but her rustiness led to many unforced errors. As the match wore on, Tan, who had admitted to being “scared” when she saw the draw, lost her fear.

Before her was the great Serena Williams, winner of 73 singles titles at the highest level of the sport. But also before Tan stood the fading 40-year-old Williams. And Tan was able to slay that version of Williams, winning the third set tie-break 10-8.

Tan moved on at Wimbledon. Williams  moved into an uncertain tennis future.

Williams’s quest to break the record of 24 Grand Slam singles held by Australia’s Margaret Court might never happen now. Under Centre Court’s glaring lights at about 10pm on 28 June, it felt as if the quest had ended.

Swiatek and a host of younger players have moved on. They are relentlessly playing, training and competing – honing their craft with dreams of titles and fame.

Williams is now, at best, a part-time player with many other priorities in her life, packed in a body that has spent more than 25 years grinding on tour.

How she balances her life outside tennis with a desire to end her career with 24 or more Grand Slams singles titles is unclear. But she remained defiant after her Wimbledon exit.

“It definitely makes me want to hit the practice courts because you’re playing not bad and you’re so close,” Williams told reporters after the match.

“Any other opponent probably would have suited my game better. So, yeah, I feel like that it’s actually kind of like, ‘Okay, Serena, you can do this if you want’.

“I think if you’re playing week in, week out, or even every three weeks, every four weeks, there’s a little bit more match toughness. But, with that being said, I felt like I played pretty okay on some of them [points], not all of them. Maybe some key ones I definitely could have played better. You got to think if I were playing matches I wouldn’t miss some of those points or this match.”

LONDON, ENGLAND – JUNE 28: Harmony Tan of France (R) interacts with Serena Williams of The United States after winning their Women’s Singles First Round Match on day two of The Championships Wimbledon 2022 at All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 28, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

The flicker of competitiveness won’t die. The season’s final major is the US Open at Flushing Meadows in New York. It’s her home event, the place where she is revered like nowhere else.

“When you’re at home, especially in New York and the US Open, that being the first place I’ve won a Grand Slam, is something that’s always super special,” Williams said.

“Your first time is always special. There’s definitely lots of motivation to get better and to play at home.”

The Covid-19 pandemic took many things from people’s lives and, in that context, a few lost years for a star tennis player seems trivial. To most it is, but to Williams, who was 38 when tours shut down during the first wave of the pandemic, it narrowed her window to match and even surpass Court.

On 2 April 2020, when the All England Club and the Committee of Management of The Championships announced the cancellation of Wimbledon that year, Williams was one of the first to react.

“I’m shooked,” was Williams’s reaction on social media to the news.

The 2022 US Open in September might be the swansong for the great Williams. But, then again, it might not. The desire to be the best doesn’t just die. Williams wouldn’t even rule out a return to Wimbledon in 2023.

“That’s a question I can’t answer,” she said. “Like, I don’t know. Who knows? Who knows where I’ll pop up? Like I said coming into this, I’m just planning for right now, seeing how I feel, just to go from there.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

Gallery

Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

All Comments 1

  • There will always be two Serenas for me: The amazing tennis player decribed above that one can only admire and, since her US open meltdown, there is also the spoilt brat Serena, that used her gender and her status as a mother to deny clear breaking of rules and displayed some of the worst sportsmanship I have seen in years.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted