Tennis: Serena Williams stunned by Harmony Tan in Wimbledon first round

France's Harmony Tan (right) shakes hands with US player Serena Williams after their match. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (REUTERS) - Seven-time champion Serena Williams suffered a second straight Wimbledon first-round exit as she was stunned by French debutant Harmony Tan in a late-night Centre Court epic on Tuesday (June 28).

A year after the American retired injured from what many feared would be her last Wimbledon match, her return was eagerly anticipated but 115th-ranked Tan ripped up the script for a stomach-churning 7-5, 1-6, 7-6 (9-7) win.

With the Centre Court roof closed and the time approaching the 11pm Wimbledon curfew, Tan had one match point snatched away when Williams served at 5-6 in a rollercoaster deciding set.

A weary Williams then appeared to be close to victory as she went 4-0 ahead in the tiebreak played to 10.

But Tan, who had never played a Wimbledon main-draw match before, was not finished and clawed her way into a 9-7 lead before sealing victory as Williams netted a forehand.

“That’s a question I can’t answer,” the 40-year-old American said when asked if she would return to Wimbledon. “Like, I don’t know. I feel like, you know, I don’t know. Who knows? Who knows where I’ll pop up.

“Today I gave all I could do ... Maybe tomorrow I could have gave more. Maybe a week ago I could have gave more. But today was what I could do. At some point you have to be able to be okay with that.

“And that’s all I can do. I can’t change time or anything, so ...”

It is always going to be tough for Williams to walk away from the sport she has dominated. And despite falling short on her return to singles action here, she seems motivated to keep going, keeping the door open for an emotional return to New York for the US Open in August.

“It definitely makes me want to hit the practice courts because, you know, when you’re playing not bad and you’re so close,” she said, seeking something positive from a bad day.

“Like I said, any other opponent probably would have suited my game better. So, yeah, I feel like that it’s actually kind of like, 'Okay, Serena, you can do this if you want'.

“Yeah, I mean, when you’re at home, especially in New York, and the U.S. Open, that being the first place I’ve won a Grand Slam, is something that’s always super special. Your first time is always special. There’s definitely, you know, lots of motivation to get better and to play at home.”

Tan, who had only ever won two Grand Slam main-draw matches compared to the 98 won at Wimbledon alone by Williams, could hardly believe what she had done after clinching by far the biggest victory of her modest career.

“I’m so emotional now. Serena is a superstar and when I was young I was watching her so many times on the TV,” the 24-year-old said on court. “For my first Wimbledon, it’s wow.

"Just wow.

“When I saw the draw I was really scared. Because it’s Serena Williams, she’s a legend. I thought if I could win one or two games it was really good for me.”

Despite wild-card Williams’ notional ranking of 1,204, on paper the match looked like a mismatch.

The 24-year-old Tan had chalked up only nine Tour wins in her career and none on grass compared to the 832 for former world No.1 Williams.

But right from the start it was clear that statistics and reputations could be ignored.

A succession of wild errors off the Williams racket handed Tan a 2-0 lead before she found some rhythm to move 4-2 ahead.

But Tan, whose subtle game belongs to a bygone era, showed great court craft and broke the mighty American's serve twice in succession on her way to snatching the opener.

Williams broke serve after a lung-busting 19-minute game early in the second set that had both players gasping and then saved four break points in the next game before rolling through the rest of the set as Tan faded.

Leading 3-1 in the decider, Williams seemed in control but it was an illusion as Tan struck a beautiful backhand winner to break back for 3-3.

Roared on by the crowd, Williams broke again at 4-4 and celebrated wildly as if she had won the title, but again Tan showed true grit and broke back with another stunning backhand.

When Williams saved match point with a swing volley to get into a tiebreak, logic suggested Tan would finally fold.

But it was Williams who faltered with victory in sight.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.