The last time Serena Williams stepped on the lawns of SW19, some of the most painful 34 minutes of her tennis career panned out—one crushing fall and crawling limp at a time.
Playing at the spotless Centre Court last year with a heavily strapped right thigh and ankles, Williams landed awkwardly on her ankle, had a medical timeout, hobbled back on to the court and took a tumble again. A singular cry of pain cut through the collective gasp of the packed court. Williams paused, her knees chained to the grass, head buried and tears trickling down. As she found the strength and composure to pull herself up to get off the court, Williams lifted her right hand, twirled a little and waved to the spectators before walking away.
Williams withdrew from her first-round match of the 2021 Wimbledon at 3-3 in the first set, those agonising visuals of the most authoritative force in the women’s game her last on a tennis court.
The last of Williams, however, is yet to come.
In one of the most anticipated comebacks in tennis this season—Roger Federer’s being the other—the 23-time singles Grand Slam champion will mark her singles homecoming at the same hallowed turf that saw her being reduced her to a hapless figure. Over the last 12 months since that “heartbroken” exit, Williams had dropped the occasional hint of playing competitive tennis again, but none stronger than earlier this week with an Instagram picture of her white sneakers on grass and a caption that read: “SW and SW19. It’s a date”.
A date it is. The Wimbledon organisers handed the current 1208th-ranked American—yup, you read it right—one of the six women’s singles wild cards for the tournament starting June 27. Williams will be back in action a lot sooner, though, pairing up with Tunisian Ons Jabeur to play doubles at the WTA Eastbourne International that begins on Sunday.
The 40-year-old’s return not only renews her personal shot at the record-equalling 24th singles Grand Slam, but also spurs up the women’s circuit left undoubtedly poorer this season by the retirement of Ash Barty. Fittingly, it comes in a Slam that the Australian went on to lift last year, and where Williams too has elevated her greatness since first making her debut in 1998 while winning the mixed doubles title with Max Mirnyi.
Wimbledon is home to seven of Williams’s 23 Major singles trophies, apart from the six doubles crowns partnering sister Venus. However, after last capturing the singles title at the All England Club in 2016 defeating Angelique Kerber in the final, Wimbledon has been more a picture of heartbreak than happiness for Williams. In her two appearances before last year’s untimely end, Williams stumbled at the final hurdle, in 2018 to Kerber and in 2019 to Simona Halep. It’s the closest the hard-hitting, all-round, all-court star has got to the magic No 24 that would place her alongside Margaret Court in the list of most singles Grand Slam titles ever won.
It’s been three years since Williams made a final of a Grand Slam, and two years since she made a final of any tournament. The former world No 1’s present four-digit ranking reflects her lack of tennis in the last 12 months after she was the world No 8 at Wimbledon. She skipped the Tokyo Olympics and the US Open with the hamstring injury, and felt she wasn’t physically ready to compete at this year’s Australian Open.
Questions begun to swirl about Williams’s continued absence and the hazy road ahead, and it only escalated when Patrick Mouratoglou, her highly-successful coach, decided to work with Halep full time in April. But that’s when Williams publicly stated her first concrete intention of coming back to the tour. Asked in an Instagram chat by NFL star Aaron Rodgers about whether she’d play at this year’s US Open, Williams said: “Wimbledon’s before the US Open, I’ve got to play Wimbledon first. Exciting!”
Exciting is an apt term to describe Williams’s return. Not just for Williams herself and her fans, but also for the women’s game that—save Iga Swiatek’s current red-hot purple patch—appears to be in a whirlwind spin. Doesn’t matter she is ranked 1208 in the world. Doesn’t matter if she hasn’t played for a year. Doesn’t matter if there’s no way to gauge her form and fitness.
It’s Serena Williams. At Wimbledon. In her latest comeback at 40. Get the popcorn out.