The radical hope of Serena Williams on Centre Court

The radical hope of Serena Williams on Centre Court

Updated Jun. 29, 2022 4:57 p.m. ET

By Charlotte Wilder
FOX Sports Columnist

Serena Williams hadn’t played a professional match in 364 days when she took to Centre Court on Tuesday at Wimbledon. She is 40 years old, was ranked 1,204th in the world and was coming back from tearing her hamstring in the same tournament this time last year. 

The same tournament she has won seven times.

Before facing Harmony Tan, a French 24-year-old ranked 115th, Williams was asked if she was pleased she hadn’t drawn a more formidable opponent. Tan had never reached the third round of a major.


"Every match is hard, every match," Williams said. "You can’t underestimate anyone or any match."

Williams’ words proved prophetic, as Tan defeated her 7-5, 1-6, 7-6 (7) in an exhausting, three-hour-and-11-minute match that probably took years off spectators’ lives. The heart palpitations that the games (some lasting 19-plus minutes) induced were intense, not to mention the last moments of the match, when Williams went up 4-0 in the tie-break before Tan came roaring back to victory.

It was an absolute pleasure to watch. There were moments of vintage Williams, such as when she battled back from being down 5-6 in the third set to force the tie-break or when she put Tan away in the second set, giving up only one game. While she didn’t play the suffocating style of tennis that made her the best, she did play with her signature power, and she hustled, never looking like she was out of the running. These two players treated us to one of the most spectacular tennis experiences I’ve ever seen.

Williams’ postmatch quote told us everything we needed to know about her headspace. 

"It was definitely a very long battle and fight," she said afterward. "It's definitely better than last year. That's a start."

That’s. A. Start.

This is coming from a woman who has played on the professional circuit for 26 years, since she was a 14-year-old from Compton, California, beginning to claw her way into the whitest (well, maybe except for golf), most gate-kept sport. Who, as many are quick to point out, is not at the beginning of the end but probably at the middle of the end, or maybe even at the end of the end. 

Granted, she could very well win another major because this is Serena Williams we’re talking about. And the end could go on for a long time because so did the beginning and the middle. But this is, statistically, the end of her career. 

The commentators, which included Williams’ friend and former player Caroline Wozniacki, were saying as Williams walked off the court that maybe this was the last time we see her at Wimbledon. 

But Williams doesn’t think like that. After her loss, she posted this on Instagram.

Onward and up. 

That does not sound like a woman who is ready to give up. And I’m not talking about tennis, necessarily. Sure, she might never appear on Centre Court again. But she has transcended the game. She started a venture capital fund in which three-fourths of the portfolio’s founders come from underrepresented backgrounds. She’s a mother and won the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant (she also almost died after giving birth to her daughter).

This is a woman who doesn’t need tennis but keeps competing anyway.

There’s peace in that Instagram caption. It gives the impression that Williams knows she’s playing with house money. Those who argue that tying Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles is the one thing left for Williams to accomplish are, well, not looking at all the facts. There is no reason she needs to be out there for her legacy in this sport. She has nothing left to prove. Yet she’s still showing up. 

Even if it means losing.

To be clear, she hasn’t lost often. Between singles and doubles, Williams has won 98 and lost only 29 of the finals she has played in. Over the course of her career, she has won 85.03% of her matches, and she has been ranked world No. 1 in 319 weeks, including a joint-record of 186 consecutive weeks.

It takes more mental fortitude to lose than it does to win. Athletes don’t have to work through anything after they win; they’re on to the next test. When they lose, though, they have to battle self-doubt, embarrassment (because even if it shouldn’t, publicly taking an L carries shame for competitive people) and sadness.

The greatest athletes are great because they don’t let the ghost of past failure or the specter of future failure stop them from trying. It’s one thing to say something inspirational, or to buy it on a sign from Target, but it’s another thing altogether to live it. 

Williams has had to battle through much more than her own mind during her career. She has had to exist in the public eye and perform better than everyone else in the world while being bombarded by the racism and sexism that come with being a Black woman. While the physical injuries Williams has bounced back from are mind-boggling, the most impressive resilience she has shown is of the mental variety. 

She never stops hoping, and she never stops showing up.

We are living in a time when it is very easy to give up hope. And perhaps it sounds hackneyed to use sports as an example of perseverance and resistance, of fighting back even when the odds are stacked against you. But much like those Target signs, there’s nothing wrong with taking inspiration where you can find it. There’s a reason athletes have inspired millions of people and women such as Serena Williams have become beacons of what is possible even when, over and over again, they shouldn’t have stood a chance.

They overcome the odds because they keep showing up. And it sounds like Williams has no plans to stop doing that.

"It’s actually kind of like, ‘OK, Serena, you can do this if you want,’" the greatest player of all time said after her match Tuesday. "Lots of motivation to get better and to play at home."

Charlotte Wilder is a general columnist and cohost of "The People's Sports Podcast" for FOX Sports. She's honored to represent the constantly neglected Boston area in sports media, loves talking to sports fans about their feelings and is happiest eating a hotdog in a ballpark or nachos in a stadium. Follow her on Twitter @TheWilderThings.


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