Serena Williams returns to singles and faces an unseeded player

In her first singles match in a year, Serena Williams could have faced one of the new leaders of the game she once dominated.

As an unseeded wild card at Wimbledon, Williams could have been drawn against No.1 Iga Swiatek, who has won six tournaments in a row. Or Coco Gauff, the 18-year-old American who is about to break into the top 10 and just lost to Swiatek in the final of the French Open.

But when Friday’s draw was completed, Williams was spared an established threat in the first round. Instead, she plays Harmony Tan, an unseeded 24-year-old Frenchwoman who is ranked 113 and is set to make her main draw debut at Wimbledon.

The match will almost certainly be played on Center Court, where Williams won seven Wimbledon singles titles, six women’s doubles titles and two Olympic gold medals as the All England Club hosted the tennis event at the London 2012 Games.

But although Tan will be stepping on that famous patch of grass for the first time, Williams will also be treading new ground. At 40, she remains arguably the biggest star in women’s tennis (Naomi Osaka makes it a point of debate), but Williams has played very little tennis for the last three years and didn’t play tennis at all on tour for almost a year until she returned to Eastbourne Week for two doubles matches with Ons Jabeur.

They both won them before Jabeur retired with a right knee injury as a precaution ahead of Wimbledon where, unlike Williams, Jabeur is one of the leading favorites for the title despite never reaching a Grand Slam final.

It’s a reflection of Jabeur’s talent as a goalscorer and recent victory at the Berlin lawn tournament, but it’s also a reminder that women’s football is in transition. Reigning women’s Wimbledon champion Ashleigh Barty sent shockwaves through the sport by retiring in March at the age of 25, tired from traveling far from her home in Australia and without the drive to continue after the to strive for the highest prices.

Swiatek, a 21-year-old Pole, has stepped into the gap convincingly to win 35 straight games and she could make it 36 ​​by beating a Croatian qualifier, Jana Fett, in the first round of Wimbledon. But Swiatek played little on grass at this early stage in her career and under her on tour the hierarchy is constantly changing.

Winning her six straight titles, Swiatek beat six different players in the final. Anett Kontaveit, seeded second at Wimbledon behind Swiatek, has lost in the first round in three of her last four tournaments and has not played a match on grass this season, attributing her recent struggles to her ongoing recovery from Covid-19.

This year’s Wimbledon, which begins Monday, will not feature a full field for women or men. Wimbledon banned Russian and Belarusian players from competing, partly due to pressure from the British government following the invasion of Ukraine.

The tours responded by stripping Wimbledon of ranking points for the first time, and despite lengthy discussions, both sides stuck to their positions.

Wimbledon has kept its prize money at normal levels and while there has been speculation that players could miss the tournament for lack of points, this has not materialized. Of the top-ranked players, the only ones who are either injured, like Alexander Zverev, Leylah Fernandez and Osaka, or suspended, like Daniil Medvedev and Aryna Sabalenka, will be absent.

Wimbledon is the only major tennis tournament to exclude the Russians and Belarusians, and the ban has ruled out four of the top 40 men, including No. 1 Medvedev and No. 8 Andrey Rublev, both from Russia. But Novak Djokovic, who has won the last three editions of Wimbledon, and his longtime rival Rafael Nadal are both in the men’s field. So does Andy Murray, who is now unseeded and trying to recover from an abdominal injury after an encouraging run to the grass final in Stuttgart.

Roger Federer, an eight-time Wimbledon singles champion who is still recovering from knee surgery at the age of 40, will miss the tournament for the first time since 1997 (he won the boys’ title in 1998 before playing in the main draw in 1999).

Djokovic, who has a good draw, meets Kwon Soon-woo of South Korea in the first round. Nadal, playing Wimbledon for the first time since 2019, meets Argentina’s Francisco Cerundolo. Murray, the British star, meets James Duckworth from Australia.

The Wimbledon ban has ruled out six of the top 40 women, including No.6 Sabalenka, a Belarusian who was a Wimbledon semi-finalist last year; No. 20 Victoria Azarenka, a former No. 1; and No. 34 Aliaksandra Sasnovich, who was Serena Williams’ youngest Wimbledon opponent.

Sasnovich made progress last year when Williams retired in the opening set of her first-round match after injuring her right hamstring again in a slip on the fresh grass on Center Court. Partly in response, Wimbledon, for the first time, allowed players to practice on Center Court before the tournament in order to carry themselves on the grass and improve their standing in the early rounds.

Williams, who has played more at Wimbledon than anyone in the women’s field, already knows her way on the grass but has been increasingly prone to injury and now needs to try to find form quickly.

Despite her world number one spot, Tan has the tools to create doubt and trouble. She’s an effective counterpuncher who likes to change tempo with slices and drop shots, and early in her comeback could force Williams to dig deep and move more than she’d like.

Williams certainly looks like the favorite with her first strike power and vast experience, but as she gets past Tan, she’ll quickly find more obvious threats. She could face number 32 Sara Sorribes Tormo, a stubborn Spaniard, in the second round and could then face number 6 Karolina Pliskova, who lost to Barty in last year’s Wimbledon final. Williams has never played Tan or Sorribes, and she split her previous four matches with Pliskova, losing to them in the 2016 US Open semifinals and 2019 Australian Open quarterfinals.

After the third round, Williams could face Gauff for the first time in a match that would surely attract a lot of interest. But it seems premature to talk about the fourth round when Williams hasn’t played singles at all in a year.

This is the second-longest hiatus of her remarkable career, ranked only behind the 13-month hiatus she took after winning the 2017 Australian Open while already two months pregnant with daughter Olympia.

She looked understandably rusty and slow in the early stages of her doubles with Jabeur at Eastbourne, but she soon found her timing, delivering some signature first serves under duress in both wins. Her ball hits in position were often solid, but the trick is to put yourself in a prime position in singles where there is so much more space to cover and the potential for extended rallies when Williams is using her serves and full- Cannot dominate cut returns.

The new wave of players, led by Swiatek, have adapted to the Force and spawn much of it themselves. A deep Williams run would be quite an accomplishment, but if there’s a Grand Slam she could hit it at with so little preparation, it would be Wimbledon.

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