With her 41st birthday just months away and without a Grand Slam title since 2017, Serena Williams faces searching questions over her future after a painful first-round Wimbledon exit.
The American was back on Centre Court on Tuesday after a year away from singles tennis but it was a miserable return to the scene of some of her greatest triumphs.
The 23-time major winner was cheered as she entered the court and supported throughout by a crowd desperate to see her recapture former glories against unseeded Harmony Tan of France.
But she looked a pale shadow of her former self, making 54 unforced errors in an uncharacteristically sloppy display that ended with a tame forehand dumped into the net. Despite her lack of form and fitness, Serena, who lost 7-5, 1-6, 7-6 (10/7), looked to have the match in her grasp at various points.
She served for victory when 5-4 up in the decider and even in the tie-break raced into a 4-0 lead before her game fell apart.
Putting a brave face on her defeat, the American said it was “definitely better than last year”, when an ankle injury forced a tearful exit in her first-round match against Aliaksandra Sasnovich.
The 40-year-old only returned to tennis last week, teaming up with Ons Jabeur in the doubles at Eastbourne.
Asked if she might have played her final Wimbledon, she said she was unsure.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Who knows? Who knows where I’ll pop up?”
Questioned as to whether she would be happy if the defeat by 115th-ranked Tan was her final memory of Wimbledon, she said: “Obviously not. You know me. Definitely not.
“But today I gave all I could do. Maybe tomorrow I could have given more. Maybe a week ago I could have given more. But today was what I could do.”
The former world number one, handed a wildcard to compete at the All England Club, first won Wimbledon way back in 2002. But despite her bitter disappointment she sounded motivated to play on, even though she is nearly twice as old as world number one Iga Swiatek
“It definitely makes me want to hit the practice courts because, you know, when you’re playing not bad and you’re so close,” she said. The US Open, which starts in August, is firmly in her sights.
Williams’s win there in 1999 was her first singles Grand Slam triumph, launching her stellar career in the majors – which has featured periods of near-total dominance.
“When you’re at home, the US Open, that being the first place I’ve won a Grand Slam, is something that’s always super special,” said Williams, who has won at Flushing Meadows six times.
“Your first time is always special. There’s definitely lots of motivation to get better and to play at home.”
Williams’s place in the pantheon of all-time greats is already assured but she remains agonisingly one singles title short of Margaret Court’s all-time Grand Slam record of 24.
The American, who has also won multiple major doubles titles with her sister Venus, last won a Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in 2017, giving birth later that year to her daughter, Olympia.
Since then she has been in four Grand Slam finals, including two at Wimbledon and two at the US Open, but has come up short each time.
Williams, who has won 73 singles titles in her career overall, has plummeted to 1,204th in the world after her year out of the game. It must look a long way back to the top for a once-dominant player as she considers her future in the game.
Serena Williams of the US leaves court after losing her first round match against France’s Harmony Tan at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, London on Tuesday. (Reuters)