In her first singles match in a year, Serena Williams could have faced one of the new leaders of the game that she once dominated.
As an unseeded wild card at Wimbledon, Williams could have been drawn to play No. 1 Iga Swiatek, who has won six tournaments in a row. Or Coco Gauff, the 18-year-old American who is on the verge of breaking into the top 10 and just lost to Swiatek in the French Open final.
But when Friday’s draw was done, Williams was spared an established threat in the first round. Instead, she will play Harmony Tan, an unseeded French 24-year-old who is ranked 113th and will be making her main-draw debut at Wimbledon.
The match will almost certainly be played on Centre Court, where Williams has won seven Wimbledon singles titles, six women’s doubles titles and two Olympic gold medals when the All England Club staged the tennis event at the 2012 London Games.
But though Tan will be stepping on to that famous patch of grass for the first time, Williams will also be in new territory. At age 40, she remains arguably the biggest star in women’s tennis (Naomi Osaka makes it a debate), but Williams has played very little tennis in the last three years and played none at all on tour for nearly a year until returning in Eastbourne this week for two doubles matches with Ons Jabeur.
They won them both before Jabeur withdrew with a right knee injury as a precautionary move before Wimbledon, where unlike Williams, Jabeur is one of the leading favorites for the title despite never reaching a Grand Slam final.
That is a reflection of Jabeur’s shotmaking talent and recent victory at the grass court tournament in Berlin, but it is also a reminder that the women’s game is in transition. The reigning Wimbledon women’s champion, Ashleigh Barty, sent shock waves through the sport by retiring in March at age 25, weary of the travel far from her home in Australia and lacking the drive to continue pushing for the biggest prizes.
Swiatek, a 21-year-old from Poland, has stepped convincingly into the gap, winning 35 straight matches, and she could make it 36 by defeating a Croatian qualifier, Jana Fett, in the first round of Wimbledon. But Swiatek has played little on grass at this early stage in her career and below her, the hierarchy on tour is constantly shifting.
In winning her six straight titles, Swiatek beat six different players in the finals. Anett Kontaveit, seeded No. 2 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 continuing recovery from Covid-19.
This year’s Wimbledon, which begins Monday, will not offer a full-strength field for women or men. Wimbledon barred Russian and Belarusian players from competing, in part because of pressure from the British government after the invasion of Ukraine.
The tours responded by stripping Wimbledon of ranking points for the first time, and despite extensive discussions, both sides held firm to their positions.
Wimbledon has maintained its prize money at normal levels, and though there was speculation that players might skip the tournament because of the lack of points, that has not materialized. Of the highest ranked players, the only ones who will be absent are either injured, like Alexander Zverev, Leylah Fernandez and Osaka or barred, like Daniil Medvedev and Aryna Sabalenka.
Wimbledon is the only major tennis tournament to bar the Russians and Belarusians, and the ban has excluded four of the top 40 men, including No. 1 Medvedev and No. 8 Andrey Rublev, both of 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 is Andy Murray, now unseeded and trying to recover from an abdominal injury after an encouraging run to the final on grass in Stuttgart.
Roger Federer, an eight-time Wimbledon singles champion who is still recovering from knee surgery at age 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, will face Kwon Soon-woo of South Korea in the first round. Nadal, playing Wimbledon for the first time since 2019, will face Francisco Cerundolo of Argentina. Murray, the British star, will face James Duckworth of Australia.
Wimbledon’s ban has excluded six of the top 40 women, including No. 6 Sabalenka, a Belarusian who was a Wimbledon semifinalist last year; No. 20 Victoria Azarenka, a former No. 1; and No. 34 Aliaksandra Sasnovich, who was Serena Williams’s most recent opponent at Wimbledon.
Sasnovich advanced last year when Williams retired in the opening set of their first-round match after reinjuring her right hamstring in a slip on the fresh grass on Centre Court. Partly in response, Wimbledon, for the first time, allowed players to train on Centre Court before the tournament to wear in the grass and improve the footing during the early rounds.
Williams, who has played more at Wimbledon than anyone in the women’s field, already knows her way around the grass, but she has been increasingly prone to injuries and will now have to try to find form in a hurry.
Tan, despite her world ranking, has the tools to create some doubt and trouble. She is an effective counterpuncher who likes to change pace with slices and drop shots and could force Williams to dig low and move more than she might like at the beginning of her comeback.
Williams, with her first-strike power and deep experience, certainly looks like the favorite, but if she gets past Tan, she will quickly run into clearer threats. She could face No. 32 seed Sara Sorribes Tormo, a tenacious Spaniard, in the second round and could then face No. 6 Karolina Pliskova, who lost to Barty in last year’s Wimbledon final. Williams has never played Tan or Sorribes, and she has split her four previous matches with Pliskova, losing to her in the semifinals of the 2016 U.S. Open and quarterfinals of the 2019 Australian Open.
Advance past the third round and Williams could face Gauff for the first time, in a match that would certainly generate major interest. But it seems most premature to start talking about the fourth round when Williams has played no singles at all in a year.
This is the second longest break of her remarkable career, ranking only behind the 13-month break she took after winning the 2017 Australian Open when she was already two months pregnant with her daughter, Olympia.
She looked understandably rusty and slow off the mark in the early stages of her doubles matches with Jabeur in Eastbourne, but she soon found her timing and came up with some trademark first serves under duress in both victories. Her ball striking when in position was often solid, but the trick will be putting herself in prime position in singles, where there is so much more court to cover and the potential for extended rallies if Williams cannot dominate with her serve and full-cut returns.
The new wave of women’s players, led by Swiatek, have adapted to the power and generate plenty of it themselves. A deep Williams run would be quite an achievement, but if there is any Grand Slam where she could achieve it with so little preparation, it would be Wimbledon.