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Injured Serena Williams Limps Out of Wimbledon in Tears; Roger Federer Survives Major First Round Scare

By Alix Ramsay

And so it was all over almost as soon as it began. Serena Williams, still chasing that elusive 24th grand slam title, hobbled out of Wimbledon after just half a dozen games. In her place, Aliaksandra Sasnovich will be back on Thursday. No one knows if Serena will ever be back.

The drama lasted just 34 minutes. Serena had looked purposeful and business-like as she began her 20th Wimbledon campaign in pursuit of her eighth Wimbledon title. She took the early lead, and stood imposingly at 3-1 in the first set.

But then she slipped ever-so-slightly at the back of the court in the fifth game. It looked to be the most innocent of movements: her left foot sliding a few inches behind her. But that jolt to her already heavily taped thigh and groin (she has had her right thigh bandaged for weeks) was all it took. She served gingerly for the next few points and limped back to her chair at 3-2. She had been broken in more ways than one.

As soon as it happened, the look on her face revealed the true extent of the damage. She stopped; she stared at the grass. She patted the spot of lush green stuff where she had slipped with her foot. Whatever the injury was – thigh, groin, ankle, who knew? – it was serious. At the change of ends, she lowered herself carefully into her chair and leant forward a little. With her eyes shut and her lips pursed, she seemed to be assessing the level of pain and the possible outcome.

The trainer was called and after almost 10 minutes of investigation followed by treatment off the court, she tried to play on. But it was no use. The neat and tidy Sasnovich levelled the score at 3-3 and much as Serena tried to serve in the next game, she looked done for. Then, in the third point of that game, she fell to the ground in tears and in pain at 15-30. It was all over. She could not play on. It was 7.57pm BST. Put the date and the time in your diary; it might the moment that Serena Williams’ Wimbledon career came to an end.

epa09311876 Serena Williams of the USA in action against Aliaksandra Sasnovich of Belarus during their first round match at the Wimbledon Championships tennis tournament in Wimbledon, Britain, 29 June 2021. EPA-EFE/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA EDITORIAL USE ONLY

As she made to go, she put on a brave face behind her mandatory mask, pausing to wave to the crowd as she made her way off court. She even hid the limp as she went. If this was to be her final farewell, she was going to make it one to remember.

But the very second she turned the corner and disappeared behind the green wall under the Royal Box, she stumbled again, her injured leg seemingly unable to hold her up, and she almost fell into the trainer’s arms. The medic had told her she would wait for her there and with her arm around the wounded champion, she propped Serena up as the pair of them inched their way into the clubhouse.

As darkness fell over Wimbledon, there was still no word from the Williams camp. By 10.30pm, the All England Club confirmed that she would not be giving a press conference (although that was hardly a surprise) but added that “We are hopeful that a statement from the Serena Williams team would be forthcoming.” No one was holding their breath, though. This Wimbledon retirement may be the precursor to another, more permanent retirement. And that will take time to decide upon and then digest for the 23-time grand slam champion.

She is, without a doubt, the greatest player, male or female, ever to have lifted a racket. Alas, the numbers will not show that in the record books – Margaret Court stands ahead of her in the roll of honour with 24 majors – and that must hurt beyond measure. There may be little by way of important, telling information for a while yet.

Serena’s problems were not without precedent as Centre Court had already claimed a victim on Tuesday: the desperately unfortunate Adrian Mannarino. It was Adrian’s birthday, too – but it was Roger Federer who got the present.

The eight-time champion escaped by the skin of his teeth, reaching the second round only when his French rival slipped and fell midway through the fourth set. As his feet went from under him, his right knee buckled and twisted. Fed was 2-1 down in sets but a break up in the fourth at the time.

Mannarino took a couple of minutes to get to his feet and, as he lay prone, Fed went to check on him. The trainer tried to help but could only offer painkillers. Trying to get back to work, it was soon clear that Mannarino was limping after a lost cause. A few points later and having dropped that fourth set and one point into the fifth, he called it a day. His right leg could barely support him and it certainly couldn’t deal with the added pressure of serving.

Yet up until then, Mannarino had been the man in charge. Admittedly, Federer was making a better fist of things at the start of the fourth set – he was being more aggressive, trying to shorten the points and knock his tormentor out of his rhythm – but he still looked anything but secure.

Mannarino was pushing Federer around from the baseline, he was sending the world No.8 scurrying into the furthest reaches of Centre Court to chase down his left-handed serve and he was making it all look so easy. In response, Federer’s timing was off and for every shot of genius, there was an unforced error. The great champion was looking rusty to the point of serious corrosion. The fightback to break and secure a 4-2 lead in the fourth set was promising but this was not the Federer who had called Centre Court his own for the best part of two decades.

And then Mannarino fell over.

“It’s awful,” Federer said, who had not lost in the first round of a Grand Slam since Wimbledon 2002. “It shows that one shot can change the outcome of a match, a season a career, so I wish him all the best. I hope he recovers quickly so we can see him back on the courts because, look, he could have won the match at the end. He was the better player. I definitely got a bit lucky but who cares about that – I wish him all the best.

“I tried to cut down on the length of points a little bit. I thought he find a nice groove from the baseline. He’s famous for the shovelled backhand – he creates a lot of problems for so many players and he did the same again today on the grass against me. That’s why I tried to cut down on the length of points a little bit and it worked well.

“Once I got the break, I was able to loosen up a little bit but then everything ended. Look, at the end it was a very up and down match. Overall, I thought we were both wrestling, trying to figure out who could enjoy the baseline a little bit more than the other. But I felt I had to adjust my game more than he had to – and that was credit to him, of course.”

A couple of years back, Serena had said that it was Federer who kept her playing. She was on 23 grand slams; Fed was on 20. And they were a month apart in age. “Who would retire first?” we asked. Serena explained that if Fed was still playing, she had to keep playing. She was laughing then. She wasn’t on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, Fed’s deal with Old Father Time was holding strong. Serena’s deal looked to have expired.

UPDATE: Statement From Serena

“I was heartbroken to have to withdraw today after injuring my right leg. 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”.