Serena Williams: Mountain just too high in brave Wimbledon fight against Harmony Tan

She was like Diana Ross at Glastonbury dusting down her greatest hits, and when the groove was good her long-time fans loved it.

Serena Williams thumps away a volley against Harmony Tan
Serena Williams thumps away a volley against Harmony Tan

Serena Williams was hoping to be supreme at Wimbledon once again. At 40 years of age, no less, and having been out of the game for almost a year.

But it looked like this might be one comeback too far against a spirited and skilful qualifier in France’s Harmony Tan. And even under Centre Court’s lights – because all divas love them – she succumbed 7-5, 1-6 7-6.

The end? “That's a question I can't answer,” Williams said afterwards. “I don't know. Who knows where I'll pop up?”

A tennis ignoramus happening across a match between one player called Serena and another answering to Harmony might have expected some polite, pleasant pit-pat. Nothing like.

This turned out to be the contest of the tournament. Thrilling rallies, shots of great subtlety and great power, a 20-minute blockbuster game. The crowd loving Williams’ endurance but also Tan’s courage. And the generous legend loving her opponent’s recoveries on the run and leading the applause.

Not to be confused with any High Street bronzing salon which might have appropriated her name, Harmony Tan is a 24-year-old ranked 113th in the world – but with her killer drop shot she never really looked like it.

Williams was urgently trying to rediscover the fearsome thunder which had brought her seven singles titles in this arena. For she was striving, yet again, for what has proved the most vital, elusive Major of her glittering career.

Vital, because a 24th in all Slams would have tied her with Margaret Court. Elusive, because having tumbled on the turf here and out of the tournament, she’d been discovering, as La Ross put it, that there ain’t no mountain higher.

What do you do, though, when you’ve done it all and won it all? Dabble. Williams the businesswoman went full pelt, as you might expected, by raising £90million to launch a venture capital fund, investing in a Los Angeles women’s football team and almost buying Chelsea.

But she hadn’t quite won it all. The 24th was still tantalisingly just out of reach. There were many agonising attempts which ended in disappointment, most spectacularly here. As more and more of the next generation’s volleys were proving to be out of reach as well, we wondered if that might be that.

Like the unfancied men across the net from Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, Tan didn’t shrink beneath the packed stands of Centre – she grew. Even when Williams broke her early in the final set she didn’t wilt. And when Tan broke back, a lovely cross-courter sealing the game, Williams clapped her racket once more.

Next game Tan kept dropping and dropping to lead the terrific contest once again. Serving, Williams was in trouble but, with the rallies maintaining stunning quality, she let rip with a lioness’s roar to celebrate a winner. But that was nothing compared with the noise, from Williams and the crowd, after an outrageous riposte, the dropee getting her own back on the dropper. A tie-break, another drop-shot from Williams for match-point; Tan saved. Then, incredibly, another from the icon but this one was too weak, the mountain just too high.

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