WIMBLEDON, England — Serena Williams began — and ended — her comeback at Wimbledon after 364 days out of singles competition looking very much like someone who hadn’t competed in just that long. She missed shots, shook her head, rolled her eyes.
In between, there were moments where Williams played very much like someone whose strokes and will have carried her to 23 Grand Slam titles. She hit blistering serves and strokes, celebrated with arms aloft.
Returning to the site of her last singles match, which she had to stop after less than a set because of an injury on June 29, 2021, and seven of her major championships, the 40-year-old Williams came within two points of victory. But she could not finish the job against an opponent making her Wimbledon debut and bowed out with a 7-5, 1-6, 7-6 (10-7) loss to 115th-ranked Harmony Tan of France.
“It’s definitely better than last year,” Williams said. “That’s a start.”
Asked whether this might have been her last match, Williams replied: “That’s a question I can’t answer. I don’t know ... Who knows? Who knows where I’ll pop up?”
With her older sister, Venus, jumping out of a guest box seat at Centre Court to celebrate the best points, Serena Williams was oh-so-close to pulling out a topsy-turvy match that lasted 3 hours, 11 minutes and was contested with the retractable roof shut for the last two sets.
“For my first Wimbledon, it’s, wow. Just wow,” said the 24-year-old Tan, who recalled watching Williams on TV as a youngster.
“When I saw the draw, I was really scared,” Tan said with a laugh, “because it’s Serena Williams. She’s a legend. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, how can I play?’ ”
This is one indication of how things were at the get-go: Of Tan’s first 11 points, only one came via a winner she produced. Others came via errors by Williams, either forced or unforced.
While Williams — who wore two pieces of black tape on her right cheek; the reason was not immediately clear — recovered from dropping the opening two games to lead, 4-2, she reversed course again and allowed Tan to quickly climb back into that set with her mix of spins and slices.
When Tan pulled even at 4-all by striking a down-the-line backhand winner, she celebrated with a yell; that shot was so good that even Williams felt compelled to applaud.
Tan came into the day with a 2-6 record at all Grand Slam tournaments. Clearly enjoying herself — and the setting, the moment, the way it all was going — she broke to lead, 6-5, with the help of a cross-court forehand winner, looked at her guest box, raised a fist and waved her arms to ask for more noise from a crowd that was loudly backing Williams.
Soon enough, a forehand passing winner gave Tan that set. At that point, it seemed reasonable to ask: Could Tan pull off by far the biggest victory of her career? Might Williams exit a major in the first round for only the third time in 80 appearances (the previous were a loss at the 2012 French Open and that mid-match retirement at Wimbledon last year)?
The latter is what happened, of course, although Williams certainly played spectacularly in the second set. She won a monumental game to lead, 2-0, breaking after 30 points and 12 deuces across almost 20 minutes when Tan shanked a forehand into the chair umpire’s stand.
In a blink, then, it was 5-0 and sure seemed as if Williams was on her way.
Her serves picked up pace and became more accurate, too: After winning just 57 percent of her first-serve points in the first set, she claimed 80 percent in the second. Her other strokes were better-calibrated: After making 22 unforced errors in the first set, she made 13 in the second.
In the third set, Williams was two points from advancing while serving for the match at 5-4 but couldn’t get closer.
Williams has spent more than 300 weeks ranked No. 1 but currently is 1,204th on account off all of that time off and thus needed a wild-card invitation from the All England Club to enter the bracket.
“If you’re playing week in, week out, or even every three weeks, every four weeks, there’s a little bit more match toughness,” she said. “But with that being said, I felt like I played pretty OK on some of ‘em. Not all of ‘em. Maybe some key ones I definitely could have played better. You’ve got to think if I were playing matches, I wouldn’t miss some of those points.”
Still, Tan was a point from victory at 6-5, and Williams erased that with a forehand winner — beginning a seven-point run that not only sent the match to a tiebreaker but put her ahead, 4-0, in it.
Yet Tan would not go gently. She grabbed five points in a row for a 5-4 lead in the new final-set tiebreaker format adopted this year by all four tennis majors: first to 10 points, win by at least two.
At crunch time, when Williams has excelled so often on so many big stages, she faltered. Tan came through.
Next for Tan is a second-round match Thursday against No. 32 seed Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain. Sorribes Tormo advanced by defeating American qualifier Christina McHale, 6-2, 6-1.
Earlier Tuesday, No. 1 Iga Swiatek extended her winning streak to 36 matches by beating Croatian qualifier Jana Fett, 6-0, 6-3, while others advancing in the women’s bracket included No. 11 Coco Gauff, 2021 French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova, and 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu.
In the men’s field, the most significant matter Tuesday was the withdrawal of Matteo Berrettini, last year’s runner-up to Novak Djokovic at the All England Club, because of a positive COVID-19 test. Another past finalist, Marin Cilic, pulled out Monday for the same reason.
Both Berrettini, who went 9-0 on grass courts elsewhere this month, and Cilic, the 2014 US Open champion, got themselves checked for COVID-19 after developing symptoms; players are not required to get tested in order to compete.
Men’s winners included 22-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal, No. 4 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, No. 11 Taylor Fritz, and unseeded Nick Kyrgios. No. 6 Felix Auger-Aliassime bowed out against serve-and-volleying American Maxime Cressy, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 7-6 (9), 7-6 (5).
The men’s bracket already is missing six of the top 11 in the ATP rankings: No. 1 Daniil Medvedev (ban on Russians), No. 2 Alexander Zverev (ankle surgery), Auger-Alissiame, No. 8 Andrey Rublev (ban on Russians), No. 10 Hubert Hurkacz (lost Monday), and No. 11 Berrettini.
“I feel very sorry for him,” Nadal said about Berrettini, “because he was playing fantastic.”