For more than three compelling hours, fans at Wimbledon’s Centre Court – and millions more watching on screens around the world – enjoyed an increasingly rare opportunity to watch the great Serena Williams compete.
The 40-year-old, ranked outside the top 1,000, had not played a singles match since this time last year and needed a wildcard to contest a tournament she had won seven times.
Facing France’s Harmony Tan, she showed glimpses of the level that earned her 23 Grand Slam singles titles – especially in a dominant second set during which she struck 22 winners against 13 unforced errors.
But this was a match that slipped away from Williams.
She held points for a 5-2 lead in the first set. She led 3-1 in the third set. She served for the match at 5-4. And she surged ahead 4-0 in the final-set match tiebreak.
Yet she departed a first-round loser, for just the second time ever in a completed Grand Slam match – and the first time in more than 10 years.
“I think physically I did pretty good. I think the last couple points, I was really suffering there,” she revealed with a smile after falling to Tan 7-5 1-6 7-6 [10-7].
“I feel like in just those key points, winning some of those points, is always something mentally that you have to have, that you kind of need.
“I did pretty good on maybe one or two of them, but obviously not enough.
“I think if you're playing week in, week out, or even every three weeks, every four weeks, there's a little bit more match toughness.
“You got to think if I were playing (more) matches I wouldn't miss some of those points or this match.”
Encouragingly, Williams hinted there may be more matches to come.
This was her first singles outing since she “ripped” her hamstring just a few games into her first-round match against Aliaksandra Sasnovich on the same court at Wimbledon in 2021.
She said the memory of exiting in such traumatic circumstances fuelled her desire to return this year.
Williams considered Tuesday’s experience against Tan a vastly improved one to 12 months ago. She acknowledged how well she fought, and seemed to accept this was the best performance she could summon on this particular day. She was also grateful for the incredible crowd support and opportunity to compete in front of fans once again.
But ultimately, she left the All England Club dissatisfied.
“Obviously not. You know me. Definitely not,” she replied, when asked if she was comfortable with this potentially being her last memory of Wimbledon.
She was asked to summarise her Wimbledon legacy – and declined to do so.
She was also asked if this was her last singles match, and said she could not answer that question.
“Like I said coming into this, I'm just planning for right now, seeing how I feel, just to go from there,” she said.
“Who knows where I'll pop up?”
In a thrilling outcome for her myriad fans – and for the sport itself – she nevertheless hinted that could be as soon as the US Open, just a few weeks out from her 41st birthday.
“When you're at home, especially in New York, and the US Open, that being the first place I've won a Grand Slam, is something that's always super special,” Williams said.
“There's definitely lots of motivation to get better and to play at home.
“(The loss to Tan) definitely makes me want to hit the practice courts because … you're playing not bad and you're so close. Any other opponent probably would have suited my game better.
“I feel like that it's actually kind of like, Okay, Serena, you can do this if you want.”