"It shows that one point can change a match, a season, a career,” said Roger Federer after his first-round Wimbledon opponent Adrian Mannarino had been forced to retire with injury.
At almost the same time as Federer was speaking, a tearful Serena Williams was leaving the All England Club after also suffering an injury in her match against Aliaksandra Sasnovich.
Williams has suffered her share of heartbreak at Wimbledon - losing in the final to a 17-year-old Maria Sharapova, losing in the first week, and losing surprisingly one-sided finals in her previous two appearances at the tournament. But what happened on Centre Court on Tuesday was the ultimate heartbreak; Williams slipping on the turf in the fifth game of her first-round match and only able to continue for two more games before a tearful retirement.
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The fact she went away for treatment and then returned and tried to play on, clearly in pain, added to the cruelty. As did the tears when Williams tried to serve after coming back to the court, and the tears when she left the court for the final time.
It was hard not to imagine that Williams was thinking when she re-emerged from the locker room after getting treatment that maybe she could get through this. Maybe she could fight and her experience and quality would be enough to overcome world No 100 Sasnovich, despite her obvious inability to move around the court. But it wasn’t to be.
It was also impossible not to wonder, as Williams walked off Centre Court to a standing ovation, how much of a missed opportunity this was.
Like Roger Federer, who was shocked to hear of Williams’ retirement in his post-match press conference, Wimbledon has seemingly been the main target for Williams so far this year. She only played a handful of matches on clay and took the positives from her fourth-round defeat at the French Open even after the draw had seemingly opened up for her. At Wimbledon – where she has won seven of her 23 Grand Slam titles - the draw seemed to be offering her an opportunity again, with Naomi Osaka and Simona Halep both out and world No 1 Ashleigh Barty overcoming an injury.
Williams started positively against Sasnovich, moving well and striking the ball cleanly as she opened up a 3-1 lead. But the slippery surface unfortunately proved her undoing. She had not previously lost in the first round of Wimbledon – holding a 19-0 record – and this is only the second time that she has retired from a Grand Slam match, the only other occasion in the third round of Wimbledon in 1998.
“I was heartbroken to have to withdraw today after injuring my right leg,” said Williams in a statement.
“My love and gratitude are with the fans and the team who make being on Centre Court so meaningful. Feeling the extraordinary warmth and support of the crowd today when I walked on - and off - the court meant the world to me.”
Williams was not the first player to fall this week. Novak Djokovic hit the deck a few times in his match against Jack Draper and Federer’s opponent Adrian Mannarino retired from their match after injuring his knee. “I just slid down and it was really slippery,” he said. "I heard a big crack and I knew straight away that I wouldn't be able to do anything anymore. I'm not used to playing on Wimbledon Centre Court...I didn't have much time to practice before the match and the court definitely looked slippery to me.”
Federer pointed out that he thought it was more slippery with the roof closed, while Sasnovich said she was having problems staying upright. “It was very slippery. When she did an angle, I couldn’t run because it was so slippery".
Coco Gauff also addressed the conditions after her win over Fran Jones on Court 2. “I think everybody saw me slipping and sliding out there on the court. I didn't realise this till after the match, but my coaches were telling me when I was going to get my towel, the ground was super wet in the back so it was causing my shoes to get wet; therefore, I was slipping a little bit.”
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Asked about Williams’ exit, Gauff added: “I was in the gym actually stretching. I turned away because stuff like that makes me really emotional. I'm a big fan of her, even though I'm a competitor now. But she's the reason why I started to play tennis. It's hard to watch any player get injured, but especially her."
Williams has endured several injury issues over the last couple of years, including an ankle issue at the Australian Open in 2019 and a shoulder problem earlier this season. It remains to be seen how serious this injury is, but Williams will be desperately hoping it doesn’t impact her summer plans. She has already decided not to play at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, but the US Open will be her last Grand Slam before she turns 40. And it will be a five-month wait before another shot at a Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in 2022.
Williams did not do press before leaving the All England Club, but if she had she likely would have faced questions about her future and how many more times she will play at Wimbledon. While those thoughts may not be on her mind now, it’s clear that time is running out to win another major, which is why this setback was so cruel. Had it been another defeat in the final it would have stung again, but not to have even have a fair crack at winning the tournament feels like Williams’ cruellest setback for some time.
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