The Eastbourne audience was on their feet as Serena Williams ran from the tunnel into Center Court with “What a Feeling” from “Flashdance” as it chimed over the sound system. She gave a wry smile and wave as all eyes were closed on her at every movement.
By the time the first-round doubles match with Anas Jaber began against Sarah Soribis Tormo and Marie Bozkova, it looked as if every cell phone camera was pointed in her direction as she worked to open the match.
While that kind of reception came as no surprise to the greatest tennis player of all time and a woman with 23 major titles to her name, no one knew what to expect from the 40-year-old Williams on the court. Playing her first game in nearly a year, she skipped her on-site practice session on Monday.
But on Tuesday, Williams provided some answers and even cleared much of the doubt with an epic victory, 2-6, 6-3, 13-11.
“There was a fire behind me,” Williams said on court after winning the second set. “I needed that.”
Williams showed signs of rust early on, her unfamiliarity with Jaber. Soribis grabbed Tormo and Bozkova and rushed to the lead early on. While there were a few moments of classic Serena greatness, including a dominant overhead smash – met, of course, with raucous applause – she searched through most of the first set as if Williams and Jaber’s eagerly awaited race at Eastbourne would be short. One.
– WTA (WTA) June 21 2022
But neither Williams nor Jaber were ready to go down without a fight. Williams’ movement is getting sharper, her shot getting crispier and her confidence (and her trademark intensity) increasing with every point she wins. By the end of the second set, Williams was everywhere on the field and was running toward every ball as if the match depended on it.
– WTA (WTA) June 21 2022
Williams has not played doubles since Auckland in 2020, and she last played a competitive match at Wimbledon in 2021. She had arrived at the All England Club last summer as a candidate, but suffered a torn hamstring in the opening set of her first match and had to retire crying. Her streak full of promises in the championship and her quest for her 24th Grand Slam title took just 34 minutes.
She made statements about her withdrawal ahead of the US Open and Australian Open, citing her health. Then there was silence. The French Open came and went, and she didn’t say anything about it. When the initial list to enter Wimbledon was revealed, you couldn’t find it anywhere. Speculation grew about the imminent retirement.
“If I say goodbye one day, I won’t tell anyone,” she said in Melbourne in 2021, and it looked as if that was exactly what happened.
But it turns out it’s not over yet. Last week, it was revealed that she has received a wild card to play at Wimbledon and will play in the doubles tie at Eastbourne.
Williams chose Jabeur as her partner – which Jabeur called “an honor” and said he had been working on since before the French Open – and felt it could be passing a torch from one pioneer to the next.
Jaber, who rose to third place in her career this week after winning the title in Berlin, has a large number of “firsts” for players from her homeland Tunisia, as well as Arab and African countries. She is already the highest-ranked Arab player of all time, and is now also linked to the highest-ranked African player in history.
While Williams’ time in the sport isn’t over, even she can’t play forever. But in a player like Jaber, who is paving the way for many aspiring young players, Williams’ overall legacy will continue.
The pair were seen smiling and laughing on the field, even during the most tense moments of the match. Both reacted to each other’s shot-making prowess with expressive and lively facial expressions and were seen in good shape and offering supportive words after nearly every point.
“It was very fun,” Jaber said after the match. “I was a bit nervous before, I was playing with such a legend, but she made me really good on the court. Even when I made mistakes she kept cheering me on so thank you [Serena] For this.”
Of course, Williams said. “We got this.”
The duo will next face Shoko Aoyama and Chan Hao Cheng on Wednesday with a semifinal spot on the streak. Despite their success and contagious spin after the win, Williams did not comply when asked if she and Jabeur would play together at Wimbledon. She may have summed up her general attitude upon entering the tournament with her response:
“Day after day,” she said. “A day at a time.”