By HOWARD FENDRICH AP Tennis Writer
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 and 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.
“For my first Wimbledon, it’s: Wow. Just wow,” said 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?’”
With her older sister, Venus, jumping out of her guest box seat at Centre Court to celebrate the best of points, Serena Williams was oh-so-close to pulling out a topsy-turvy match that lasted 3 hours, 10 minutes and was contested with the retractable roof shut for the last two sets.
This is one indication of how things were at the get-go: Of the 24-year-old 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.
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 career 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 two were a loss at the 2012 French Open and that mid-match retirement at Wimbledon last year)?
In the end, the latter is what happened.
Williams was two points from advancing while serving for the match at 5-4 in the third set but couldn’t get closer.
Tan was a point from victory at 6-5, but 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 two.
At crunch time, when Williams has excelled so often on so many big stages, she faltered. Tan came through.
Rafael Nadal got his Wimbledon campaign off to a winning start, though he needed four sets to do it.
The second-seeded Nadal defeated Francisco Cerundolo of Argentina, 6-4, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 on Centre Court.
The Spaniard is attempting to win his third consecutive Grand Slam tournament to add to his men’s record 22 major titles.
It was Nadal’s first match since winning the French Open earlier this month.
The three weeks off showed at times, as Nadal amassed 41 unforced errors to go with 23 winners.
At Roland Garros, Nadal needed injections to numb the pain in his bothersome left foot. But he entered Wimbledon optimistic about the foot after receiving new treatment.
Sixth-seeded Felix Auger-Aliassime became the highest men’s seed to be eliminated so far, when the Canadian lost to former UCLA player Maxime Cressy, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 7-6 (9), 7-6 (5).
The 21-year-old Auger-Aliassime was a quarterfinalist last year for his best result at the All England Club.
Cressy came into Wimbledon in good form, having been runner-up to Taylor Fritz at the grass-court Eastbourne tournament last weekend.
American teenager Coco Gauff rebounded from a set down to beat Elena-Gabriela Ruse, 2-6, 6-3, 7-5, in her opener.
The 18-year-old Gauff was the runner-up at the French Open but needed three sets to get past the 54th-ranked Romanian.
The 11th-seeded Gauff got the go-ahead break in the third set at 5-5 on her sixth break point of the game when Ruse double-faulted.
Gauff accumulated 25 break points but converted only four. Ruse was more efficient on break points, converting four of six.
Ruse made more than twice as many unforced errors: 54 to Gauff’s 26.
Gauff reached the fourth round in her previous two appearances at Wimbledon.
Top-ranked Iga Swiatek extended her winning streak to 36 matches – the longest run on the women’s tour since 1997 – with a 6-0, 6-3 victory over Croatian qualifier Jana Fett on Centre Court.
After dominating early, Swiatek fell behind 3-1 in the second set before winning the next five games. She saved five break points to avoid going down 4-1.
It was the 21-year-old Polish player’s first match since winning the French Open title earlier this month.
The previous wins in her streak were on either clay or hard courts – this was her first on grass.
Martina Hingis reached 37 wins in a row before losing at the 1997 French Open final.
BERRETTINI OUT AFTER POSITIVE TEST
Matteo Berrettini, the 2021 Wimbledon runner-up, has pulled out of the tournament after testing positive for COVID-19.
The All England Club announced Berrettini’s withdrawal and he posted about it on Instagram.
The eighth-seeded Italian was supposed to play Cristian Garín in the first round on Tuesday.
KYRGIOS SPITS TOWARD FAN
This is not what one thinks of when pondering the supposedly genteel roots of tennis, and the purportedly proper atmosphere at dates-to-the-1800s Wimbledon, a country club sport being contested at a place officially called the All England Lawn Tennis Club: a player, Nick Kyrgios, capping a first-round victory Tuesday by spitting in the direction of a spectator he said was hassling him.
“I’ve been dealing with hate and negativity for a long time, so I don’t feel like I owed that person anything. Like, he literally came to the match to literally just not even support anyone, really. It was more just to stir up and disrespect. That’s fine,” Kyrgios said after beating Britain’s Paul Jubb, 3-6, 6-1, 7-5, 6-7 (3), 7-5. “But if I give it back to you, then that’s just how it is.”
During the match, which filled the stands at 1,980-seat Court No. 3 – and attracted lengthy lines of folks hoping to eventually be let in, likely owing to the popularity of the anything-can-happen Kyrgios, a 27-year-old from Australia, and the involvement of a local player – Kyrgios asked, without success, to have the fan removed for cursing and sending other verbal abuse his way.
This comes less than three weeks after organizers at a tournament in Stuttgart, Germany, investigated when Kyrgios said he heard racist insults from the crowd during a match, and raises questions about when unruly behavior is too unruly or whether more should, or even can, be done to shield athletes from inappropriate comments that come from the stands.
“I’ve grown up in Australia, so I definitely know what racism is. I feel like it’s a battle, constant battle, coming from that place and dealing with it. … I don’t think it’s got anything to do with that. I just think spectators, in general, think there’s just no line there anymore. They can just say something and they film it and then they laugh about it,” Kyrgios said. “It’s like that could actually hurt someone’s feelings. Do you know what I mean?”
Tennis players long have dealt with online abuse, particularly from gamblers angry about a particular match’s outcome. Negative interaction among athletes and the people paying to watch them is gaining more attention in real life, too.
At a tournament in Indian Wells in March, Naomi Osaka cried after a spectator shouted, “Osaka, you suck!”
The four-time Grand Slam champion explained the episode dredged up thoughts of when Serena and Venus Williams were jeered at that event in 2001 after Venus withdrew, citing an injury, before the sisters were supposed to play each other. Their father, Richard, said racial slurs were sent his way; his daughters stayed away from that tournament for years.
“Personally, I’ve never experienced any type of heckling on the court (and) I’m very lucky, because I know other players have experienced it. Definitely online, I have the experience a lot, but that’s different,” said Gauff, the 18-year-old Floridian who was the runner-up at the French Open earlier this month. “I definitely think there is a line that you shouldn’t cross.”
Gauff mentioned what she called the “obvious” examples of racial or sexual comments.
“That’s definitely way past the line,” she said. “There are some things that you do have to deal with as an athlete. That’s just a part of the sport. Particularly in tennis, it’s not very common. It’s not in the tennis culture, especially let alone at Wimbledon. I think the line definitely is a lot closer to being crossed than I would say than other sports because that’s just the culture of tennis. For me, personal attacks – that kind of crosses the line, really.”
An All England Club spokesperson said no fans were removed from Kyrgios’ match, but that there could be a review of what went on, including what he said at his news conference.
As for the sorts of things he is hearing from people during his matches, Kyrgios concluded: “I’m just starting to think that it’s normal, when it’s really not.”
More to come on this story.