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“You never know when you are going to play Wimbledon,” Serena Williams admitted, and certainly that was true for everyone else as well. As the weeks ticked on and the countdown began for this year’s Championships at the All England Club there was certainly no indication that it would feature a seven-time champion. There had not been a retirement announcement but apart from an injury update confirming her withdrawal from the US Open in August, there had been very little at all to suggest that a return was imminent or even part of the plan, either.
But then, quite suddenly, it was, and with a flash of two white tennis shoes in front of a backdrop of deep, early-season grass. “It’s a date,” was all it took to confirm the news and the audacious, long-awaited and yet shocking comeback of the 40-year-old Serena Williams at Wimbledon was on.
When the opening round at SW19 gets underway on Monday it will have been 363 days since Williams last played a singles match, where the American was forced to retire just seven games into her match against Aliaksandra Sasnovich. Whether the trauma of that day – the slip and tears on centre court, the torn hamstring, the wave of goodbye – made Williams any more determined to ensure that would not be her parting memory of Wimbledon is unclear but it led to an uncertain future.
“Did I ever doubt I would return? Absolutely, for sure,” she revealed and, for a player who once admitted that when she does say farewell to the sport she wouldn’t tell anyone, that is a thought that will hang over the next two weeks, whatever her participation in Wimbledon is and how long it will last for.
For now, though, the comeback is underway. The confirmation that Williams had received a wildcard for Wimbledon was followed by the announcement that she would be playing doubles alongside the world No 3 Ons Jabeur at Eastbourne. On Tuesday, the pair made a winning start after recovering from an understandably rusty opening set to take the second and then the deciding tie-break against Sara Sorribes Tormo and Marie Bouzkova. Once Williams’s movement around the court steadied, the groundstrokes were hit with greater power and accuracy, and there were frequent smiles between the playing partners.
“It was clicking,” Williams said, and with Jabeur’s touches around the net and Williams’ serve consistently findings its spots, they were a formidable force in their second round win against the doubles specialists Shuko Aoyama and Chan Hao-ching. The pairing was Williams’s idea and the chance to play alongside a legend of the sport was gleefully accepted by the Tunisian, who was picked out because of her form and ability but also for her reputation as one of the most down to earth players on tour. They only practised together for the first time on Tuesday but after their opening match were already faced with questions over whether they would be continuing their partnership into Wimbledon.
“I’m literally taking it one day at a time,” Williams said, and that will need to be her approach throughout the Championships as well. It is unlikely that Williams will have set too many expectations on herself beyond her enjoyment of the sport and while Margaret Court’s record of 24 grand slam titles remains a target (Williams has lost her last four finals, after all), it seems unfair to mention it as anything near realistic given her lack of training and time on court. It should not be possible at all, really, to rock up to Wimbledon at age 40 having not played a match in 12 months, but the Williams sisters have made careers, have made lives, out of defying what has been expected of them.
Much has changed in tennis between Williams’s last two appearances on a tennis centre court, not least Emma Raducanu’s US Open win and the ascension of Iga Swiatek to world No 1, with the 21-year-old also now breaking Williams’s 34-match winning streak she set in 2013. Yet for all the change, Williams remains. For all the star names in the draw who will also attract attention, she is one with no equal. Once again, improbably, Wimbledon will have the chance to remember why.