Serena Williams slowly picked herself up off of her knees, each movement looking more pained than the last. She had screamed in agony as she fell to the ground, and by the time she stood up, the chair umpire was by her side.
The match was over, and with it, her much-publicized quest for her 24th major title and eighth at Wimbledon.
She covered her face with her arm and couldn’t hide the tears falling down her face. She waved to the Centre Court crowd, with her hand over her heart, as they showered her with a loud standing ovation. Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said in a text Wednesday morning to ESPN’s Chris McKendry, “Apparently the injury is at the top of her hamstring, in the glute.” While we may never know for sure what Williams, 39, was thinking or feeling in that moment, the devastation was clear. It was written all over her face, and she didn’t bother masking it.
Whether in 2021 or beyond, her time at the All England Club wasn’t supposed to end this way.
“It’s impossible to speculate, and I shouldn’t, but it’s hard not to think that was Serena’s last match here,” said Pam Shriver, the 21-time major doubles champion and ESPN analyst. “It was incredibly emotional.”
Despite having a season filled with more questions than answers and having played in just five events, Williams was one of the favorites entering the year’s third major. With the tournament having been canceled in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, most players having little recent experience on grass and the absence of stars like Naomi Osaka and reigning champion Simona Halep, everything was lining up for Williams to finally match Margaret Court’s long-standing record for most major titles of all time.
For a few moments on Tuesday, it looked as if she was on track to do just that. Williams took a commanding 3-1 lead over Aliaksandra Sasnovich in the first set of their first-round match, before sliding on the slippery grass and suffering an apparent right leg injury. She took a medical timeout to receive treatment at the end of the game but was still limping as she walked back out on court. She played just nine more points.
Unlike at the Australian Open, where she was defeated by Osaka in the semifinals and shared a similarly emotional moment with the crowd, Williams didn’t even attempt to provide any insight with the media after the match. She had left her news conference in tears in Melbourne, but the last scene of Williams at Wimbledon was her silently getting into a chauffeured car with her husband, mother and sister, still wearing her on-court dress and “Queen” necklace.
The road ahead is unclear.
“She’s of course first going to have to assess the injury, and then spend some time with her family. She’s lucky to have so many people with her who can support her,” Shriver said. “It’s obviously an emotional time, so she should wait a few days to decide anything beyond that, but then she’ll have to figure out if she can properly prepare for the US Open.”
Since coming back from childbirth in 2018, Williams has made four major finals — Wimbledon in 2018 and 2019 and the US Open the same years. In all four tournaments, she largely cruised to the championship match, but lost both finals in straight sets. It was the US Open in 2018 that was the most memorable, as she was docked a critical game in the second set against Osaka, sending Arthur Ashe Stadium into chaos as the fans booed loudly. Both players were crying by match’s end.
Shriver believes that outcome complicates Williams’ future even more.
“I’ve said for a long time I believe she wants to win one as a mom even more than she wants the record, but getting ready for the US Open won’t be easy, even if she’s healthy, given all she’s been through there,” Shriver said. “Not to mention the physicality of the hard courts. It’s tougher on the body than grass, and there are so many talented players now on that surface.”
Williams has previously said she wasn’t necessarily chasing Court’s record, but she has spoken openly about her desire to win Grand Slams and her belief that she still has what it takes to do so. Her upcoming decisions may largely center on if that confidence still remains.
Williams announced over the weekend she would not be playing in the Tokyo Olympics despite qualifying for the American team, so she will have substantial time to recover before the hard-court season. The Canadian Open, a 1000-level event in which she was the runner-up in 2019, could be the next tournament she would target. The event is slated to begin on Aug. 9 in Montreal. The Western & Southern Open, another 1000-level event she has played previously, would be the following week. The US Open starts on Aug. 30.
Williams sparked retirement talk following the exit at the Australian Open, and her response to a question about whether she had been saying goodbye to the crowd did little to quell speculation.
“I don’t know,” she said. “If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone.”
She tearfully left the room seconds later and didn’t play again until the Italian Open in May. Following her loss at the French Open, she opted to not play in any lead-up events for Wimbledon. If she were to play the event next year, nearly three years would have passed since her last completed match on grass. As such a markedly different surface than hard court or clay, that would be a tough task for anyone, no matter how many titles they have.
Williams did post a message on her Instagram account on Tuesday, accompanied by a picture of herself walking onto Centre Court. She provided no details about her injury or her future, but she did thank those in the stands.
“I was heartbroken to have to withdraw today after injuring my right leg,” Williams wrote. “My love and gratitude are with the fans and the team who make being on Centre Court so meaningful. Feeling the extraordinary warmth and support of the crowd today when I walked on – and off – the court meant the world to me.”
And to an extent, she even left her opponents heartbroken. After the match, Sasnovich said her father dreamed she would one day get to play Williams on the biggest of stages at Wimbledon, and she was thrilled it momentarily came true. That type of story is not unique.
For years, Williams’ younger opponents, from those she’s faced in finals like Osaka and Halep, to the ones who often play her in the early rounds, have spoken openly about their admiration for her and how as kids learning the sport, they fantasized about getting the chance to face her at a Grand Slam.
“I’m a big fan of her, even though I’m a competitor now,” Coco Gauff, 17, said after her win on Tuesday. “But she’s the reason why I started to play tennis. It’s hard to watch any player get injured, but especially her.”
The window for those dreams to come true is undoubtedly getting smaller. While it may not be now, Williams will one day make the decision to walk away from the sport she transformed with her dominant play and transcendent superstardom. But her influence will long be felt by generations to come. And no matter whether she wins another major or never plays another match, her legacy is firmly secured.
“She’s the greatest female player ever,” Shriver said. “Margaret Court played in a different era; more than half of her major wins came before the Open era and before players were regularly traveling to Australia. The only reason we’re talking about it is because she already passed Chris Evert and Martina [Navratilova] at 18, and then Steffi Graf at 22. It was the only record left she hadn’t beaten.
“She doesn’t need to prove anything else.”