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The fault, as usual, lies with the rest of us.
Serena Williams is just trying to say goodbye in her way, to give her closure and peace of mind after one of the greatest sporting careers anyone has seen. We keep insisting it can somehow be more.
It cannot. And we’d all be better off if we just accepted that.
In any normal context, Williams’ first-round Wimbledon loss to Harmony Tan on Tuesday should be celebrated. Here was a 40-year-old mother fighting her eyeballs out for three-plus hours on Centre Court, trying to somehow win a professional tennis singles match after not playing one for a full year. She came close — desperately close — to pulling it off.
But the reality is that against the 115th-ranked player in the world, someone who has never been past the second round of a Grand Slam, Williams’ 23 major titles didn’t matter. Neither did an aura that once intimidated rivals into submission before the first ball was struck. This was just an old, rusty, once-great tennis player trying to survive against an opponent whose plan was to give her a steady diet of drop shots and junk balls and hope she missed.
WHO IS HARMONY TAN?: The French tennis player who spoiled Serena Williams' Wimbledon return
Anything close to peak Serena would have swatted such a player away with ease. This version got tentative in big moments, made a ton of unforced errors and ultimately lost, 7-5, 1-6, 7-6 (10-7).
“It was definitely a very long battle and fight and definitely better than last year,” Williams said, referring to the hamstring injury that forced her to retire early in last year’s first-round match. “That’s a start.”
But where is it going to lead?
Realistically, not to her 24th Grand Slam title. This match should put the enormity of that goal into perspective once and for all.
If Williams commits to a full-time schedule of training and playing tournaments, maybe there’s still time for her to make one more good run somewhere. But if it happens, it’s probably going to look more like 39-year-old Jimmy Connors making a miracle semifinals at the 1991 U.S. Open and less like Tiger Woods at the 2019 Masters.
If that’s the expectation, every time Williams steps foot on the tennis court now will be icing on the cake regardless of the results. But nobody’s interests are served by thinking that she actually has a chance to win seven consecutive difficult matches against the best players in the world.
Until Tuesday, that was hard for a lot of people to wrap their minds around.
Let’s face it, we all got excited when Williams, out of the blue, took a wildcard into the Wimbledon field. She hadn’t been heard from for months, and then — boom — there she was last week playing a couple doubles matches in a warm-up tournament. Her draw, on paper, looked manageable. If Williams felt good enough about her game to show up, maybe she could do something special. Nobody wants to accept the athletic mortality of the all-time greats before they do.
Reality, though, often tells a different story. Tan did a few things that allowed her to win the match, but mostly Williams lost it. She got tired, she got tentative and by the end she was either sending shots out of play or giving Tan routine short balls on important points that were relatively easy to smack past her.
"I think if you’re playing week in and week out, or even every three or four weeks, there’s a little more match toughness,” Williams said. “But with that being said, I felt like I played pretty OK on some (big points), not all of them. Maybe some key ones I definitely could have played better. You’ve got to think if I were playing matches I wouldn’t lose some of those points.”
But that’s what happens to older players when they physically can’t or don’t want to put in the work it takes to perform at the highest level. And who could blame Serena Williams, of all people, for that?
She has a daughter. She has myriad business interests. She admitted in her pre-tournament press conference that it felt wonderful to not train for a few months after the injury last year. And, of course, she has 23 Grand Slam titles and the unofficial designation as the greatest women’s tennis player of all time. What more is there for her, really, at this stage of the game?
It would be great news for tennis if she wants to keep going. Whether it’s the U.S. Open or the WTA 250-level tournament in Cleveland, give her all the wildcards she wants and let her play as long as it fulfills her. Williams isn't tipping her hand about what’s next but didn’t rule out the possibility that she might give it another go this summer.
If or when she gets on the court again, we’re all going to watch. But expecting more than what we saw Tuesday is unfair. Williams competed hard. She fought until the end. She went out like a champion, albeit one whose athleticism and skills have declined. Hopefully that’s enough for her. It should be enough for all of us, without the unrealistic and undue conversation about winning a 24th Grand Slam title.
“I gave all I could do today,” she said. “Maybe tomorrow or a week ago I could have gave more but today is what I could do. And at some point you have to be able to be OK with that and that’s all I can do. I can’t change time or anything so that’s all I could do on this particular day.”
At 40 years old, everyone should be OK with what she could do Tuesday. Whatever the rest of Williams’ career has in store, it doesn’t need to be anything more.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Serena Williams trying to leave tennis on her terms. Time to let her.