Even in Wimbledon defeat, Serena Williams’ irrepressible presence makes her a champion

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Williams lost in three sets to unseeded French talent Harmony Tan in their opening round clash.

It feels almost absurd to talk about somebody losing like a champion. At the very least, it’s oxymoronic. Some might even argue that it’s just plainly moronic.

And yet, watching Serena Williams get pushed beyond even her extraordinary limits on Centre Court in the gathering dusk of an expectant Tuesday evening, there was an undeniable greatness to her defeat.

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In terms of pure performance, the 23-time Grand Slam winner was far beneath her inexorable best; relatively unremarkable shots strayed long and wide with an uncharacteristic frequency, and there was a certain rustiness to her movement that, at times, whispered towards her year away from the sport.

Flashes of irresistible genius and a mercilessly second set aside, this was not the exhibition of paramountcy that we’ve come to expect from Williams.

To complicate matters further, her opponent, Harmony Tan, rose to the occasion in a way which seemed to catch even herself unawares.

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Speaking after her gruelling 7-5, 1-6, 7-6 victory, she said: “I’m so emotional now.

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“Serena is a superstar and when I was young I was watching her so many times on the TV.

“It’s wow. Just wow.

“When I saw the draw I was really scared. Because it’s Serena Williams, she’s a legend and I was like ‘oh my god how can I play, and if I could win one or two games it was really good for me!’”

The world number 115 was making her main-draw Wimbledon debut, but produced the kind of measured, unflinching display that belied her inexperience. Even at four points down in a final set tie-break, with Williams seemingly having broken the back of her mettlesome spirit, her nerve held, and then some.

But one way or another, Tuesday was always going to be about the American. The stories waiting to be written were simply too sumptuous to ignore.

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At 40 years of age, after such an extended period of uncertainty, the greatest tennis player of the Open era returned to Wimbledon as that most beguiling of rarities - an unknown entity.

Ordinarily, an absence like the one that Williams has had to endure, especially given her seniority, would have been enough to shatter any semblance of optimism - and yet, there was always the creeping suspicion of a chance.

Much was made of Williams’ proclivity for drama in the anticipatory discourse ahead of her return. More than once, her tendency to whip herself up into a frenzied supernova of adrenaline was referenced from the commentary box, all battle cries and seething volleys, like some racquet-wielding beserker.

Certainly, there were times when her aura against Tan was one of palpable intimidation.

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But more than any faux rage or inorganic histrionics, Williams’ greatest weapon remains her irrepressible presence.

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From the moment that she stepped out on to court, adorned in messianic white, throughout the murmured reverence that accompanied her tentative warm-up, to the gritted relief of every hardfought point edged, Williams continued to exude a compelling magnetism and a hunger that elevates tennis to its most illustrious form.

Even in defeat, as she stared down the heartache of a squandered tie break and an alien first round upset, her expression was one of earnest respect - maybe dashed with shock, perhaps even a tinge of pride on behalf of her unfancied opponent - but respect, nonetheless.

At no point did any of Tuesday’s epic struggle feel beneath the superlatively-decorated champion, to her credit.

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In the end, Williams couldn’t give Wimbledon the fairytale return it craved. Instead, she gave her all, and in doing so, helped to produce one of the finest first round contests Centre Court has seen in a long while.

The American may have lost, but she did so like a champion, because, at this stage in her career, she is a champion in everything she does.

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