In the longest women’s singles game to date, world No. 115 and her first Wimbledon appearance, let alone on the Center Court main stage, Tan kept her nerve in the decisive super tiebreak to win 7-5 1 -6 7-6 (10-7).
This was clearly not the most vintage rendition of Williams’ illustrious career, nor would it ever give her time in the game.
But when the roof closed and the lights flashed in Center Court — a scene that evoked oohs and ahs from those watching — the two players put on a show that delivered too much drama.
At the end it was Tan who crushed Williams’ comeback party, producing shots several times that even earned applause from her opponent on the other side of the net.
“For my first Wimbledon – it’s wow. Just wow,” Tan said, lost for words, in her court interview.
Few attendees disagreed.
Williams, who turned 40 last September, has refused to give up her pursuit of a 24th Grand Slam title, five years after claiming her last at the Australian Open.
“Who knows where I’ll turn up,” she told reporters when asked about her future, even suggesting an appearance at the US Open could be on the horizon later this year.
“The US Open – that’s the first place I’ve won a grand slam – is something that’s always super special,” Williams added. “Your first time is always special. There is definitely a lot of motivation to get better and play at home.”
Calm was to be expected during Williams’ return to Wimbledon and it took her time to find some sense of rhythm against Tan. Prior to Tuesday, her only competitive outing in the past year was two doubles matches at Eastbourne last week.
She was broken in the first game, but by the fourth she was starting to find her feet – clearing her foundations as she hit back with a double break from Tan’s service.
However, the first set proved to be emblematic of the match as a whole: just as Williams seemed to have the upper hand over her opponent, Tan would fight his way into the fray.
That was the case several times in the final set, as Williams led twice through a break and then took an early lead in the decisive super tie-break, only for Tan to take 10 of the next 13 points and claim her biggest win. career.
Tuesday’s game was a marked contrast in styles. Williams’ offensive display was hit and miss as she landed 61 winners – a mix of thumping foundations and sweetly beaten drive salvos – interspersed with 54 unforced errors.
Tan, on the other hand, was more conservative, relying heavily on her piece to move Williams across the field — a tactic the American later admitted took her by surprise.
“I think I could have played any person, [it] probably would have had a different result,” she said. “I knew there was a lot of plaque, but not so much beforehand. I definitely had to try to find my rhythm there. You know, hindsight is 20/20.”
The positive for Williams, who retired from the first round of Wimbledon last year against Aliaksandra Sasnovich after she slipped and injured her leg, was that her body held up well against Tan.
“Physically I was fine,” she added. “The last few points I really started to feel it. But I move well, I get a lot of balls back. I move well in practice.
“That wasn’t surprising to me because I knew I was doing so well. I didn’t train for, you know, a three-hour game. I think I made a mistake there.”
Before Wimbledon, Williams reflected on how tennis is no longer her sole focus in life. In court, motherhood, her venture, and the release of the film King Richard, which she helped produce, have all taken up her time.
“It’s been very different, honestly. Part of me feels like that’s a little bit more of my life than tournaments now,” she said last week.
But that’s not to say Williams is completely ready to say goodbye to tennis, even if she doesn’t know when and where her next gig will be.
And if anything, the defeat to Tan has made the tennis fires burn that little bit brighter.
“I definitely want to go to the practice courts,” she said, “because if you don’t play badly and you’re so close… you want to.”