She lost 7-5, 1-6, 7-6 (7) to the 24-year-old Parisian Harmony Tan, and then she walked out at 10:36 p.m. to another boom of a cheer from a crowd that had adored her in her first match in 12 months and the first match of her forties, which she reached nine months ago. Her exit followed the whole, twisting, turning 243 points of a first-round match that became a first-round saga, scraping on through three hours and 11 minutes from the twilight to the darkness of an English evening.
In returning to Grand Slam tennis play for the first time since last Wimbledon, the seven-time champion and 23-time major champion hoped to create a memory to replace the one from 2021, when she retired injured from a first-round match against Aliaksandra Sasnovich. She did create a wealth of memories, but mostly for the two-thirds-full Centre Court crowd that got to see her fight and got to wonder if it saw her for a final time.
As Tan peppered the court with drop shots as if by ancient text of how to play someone with 40-year-old legs, she forced Williams to elevate, and elevate Williams did. The match showed her rustiness (54 unforced errors), her everlasting brilliance (61 winners) and the guttural screams that long have helped her find her inner Serena Williams. It showed her fight in the utmost when she prevailed through a monster of a 12-deuce, 30-point second game of the second set, taking on momentum there. She even saved at match point at 5-6 in the third set by charging in on a sitter, blasting it into a corner for a clean winner and sending the crowd into another of its frenzies born partly of something Williams seldom has required: empathy.
Ultimately, though, she lost to the steadiness of the daughter of Cambodian and Vietnamese parents, a player coached by 1998 Wimbledon finalist Nathalie Tauziat, and a player who improved her lifetime match record at Grand Slam tournaments to 3-6, set against that of Williams, which stands at 365-55. As it ended, Williams drove a forehand wide to trail 9-7, drove a low forehand into the net to close matters and exited a Wimbledon she had ached to grace further.