Serena Williams' major window closing as injury derails Wimbledon hopes

·Columnist
·5 min read

Back in Compton, Richard Williams used to encourage his two youngest daughters — Venus and Serena — to verbalize their dreams. It was better to say a goal out loud, he figured, than to keep it a secret.

So as he taught his kids how to play tennis, he’d routinely ask them to imagine capturing a major championship. Which one will you win first, he’d ask. Which one do you want the most?

Venus would always say Wimbledon, drawn to the pristine grass courts and proper air about the oldest of the game’s major championships. Her younger sister, Serena, went the opposite — the U.S. Open. She wanted the mayhem and madness of New York.

They would each go onto win both, of course. Multiple times.

But through the years, even as Serena’s love of the U.S. Open never waned, her appreciation of Wimbledon grew. She’s won seven times just outside of London, one more than her six in Queens. She also took a gold medal there at the 2012 Olympics. The all-white outfits may not always appeal to her style, but she long ago embraced the speed of grass play and the sheer magnitude of the surroundings.

“It still has a very special feeling,” she said of walking through the All-England Lawn Tennis club grounds this week.

It made her first-round match Tuesday all the more difficult to witness.

Serena had to retire in the first set, tied at three games a piece with Aliaksandra Sasnovich, after injuring herself slipping on the grass. She sought treatment and returned to play briefly, before crumpling to the ground. She left the court in tears as the crowd offered a standing ovation.

Serena Williams tears up as she withdraws from her first round match against Aliaksandra Sasnovich on the second day of Wimbledon. (Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)
Serena Williams tears up as she withdraws from her first round match against Aliaksandra Sasnovich on the second day of Wimbledon. (Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

This isn’t just an early exit from an all-time great, it’s a reminder that one of these days will be the last we see of Serena Williams at Wimbledon, or any major championship.

She is 39 now and arrived Tuesday wearing a heavy wrap around one thigh. Her mere presence at the elite level of the sport — she was seeded sixth — is incredible. Time is undefeated though.

She hasn’t won a major championship since 2017. She hasn’t made a final since 2019. Her longest previous drought without a major was nine events early in her career, when she was still a teenager. It now stands at 18 — albeit four were missed due to becoming a mother and one was canceled due to COVID-19.

Still, how many more legitimate chances does she have at winning a major? And whatever the number is, her best opportunity may be at Wimbledon.

This would be about the last way anyone would want the last time to end.

Williams’ status as the greatest women’s player of all time is virtually without doubt. Her 23 major championships as a singles player is one short of Margaret Court’s, but Court won 11 of hers at the Australian Open at a time when many top players didn’t travel there. Steffi Graf had a more dominant prime — winning 20 of her 22 majors during a nine-year span — but she retired at age 30.

Serena, meanwhile, keeps pushing on — through motherhood, through injuries, through setbacks, through the travails of age that have sent others to the sidelines. She’s relentless.

She doesn’t need any more money. She doesn’t need any more fame. She clearly cares about her daughter, Olympia, more than anything on earth. Yet she can’t quit the game. One of those reasons is Wimbledon.

Serena’s best chance at a 24th major is at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. The venues suit her. The style of play too. Since giving birth in 2017, she’s reached the finals at each place twice, only to fall short. The French Open and Australian Open have yielded just one trip to the semifinals in a combined eight appearances.

Serena Williams reacts as she pulls up injured before withdrawing from her women's singles match in the first round of the 2021 Wimbledon Championships on Tuesday. (Adrian DENNIS / AFP)
Serena Williams reacts as she pulls up injured before withdrawing from her women's singles match in the first round of the 2021 Wimbledon Championships on Tuesday. (Adrian DENNIS / AFP)

Last year, Wimbledon was canceled due to COVID, which didn’t just limit Serena’s chances at winning another, but knocked her entire annual routine off. It’s part of what made getting back there this summer so important.

“It's hard to describe,” Serena said the other day. “Just being here. Being on the grass. It's the only Grand Slam that is so unique and so different. I think [there is] so much history here.”

At her age, she’s never going to be the favorite again, but there were reasonable hopes. Instead she left in the first round for the first time ever there.

Her slip was awkward, but unfortunately not even that surprising. On the men’s side, Adrian Mannarino slid on the same patch of slick Centre Court grass in a first-round match with Roger Federer and was forced to retire from that deadlocked match.

“This is obviously terrible,” Federer said.

Whether the turf becomes a recurring problem at this event remains to be seen. As the tournament plays out, the grass naturally gets worn down. In past years, it’s become easier to move on.

In the meantime, presuming her injury isn't significant, it’ll be about rest and refocus for Serena.

She was sitting out the Olympics anyway this year, so now everything points to the U.S. Open — still her favorite and still a major she can conceivably win. The dream will continue, even if age, time and circumstance keep making another title that much more improbable.

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