There were nerves at Wimbledon on Friday when the draws for this year’s championship were made. Which luckless soul would land a first-round match against the woman currently ranked 1,204? That loaded fate fell to the appealingly named French player Harmony Tan, herself world No 113. At that moment, the other 126 women in the singles competition could breathe a sigh of relief that they would not after all be facing number 1,204, better known as Serena Williams.
For virtually all of the 21st century, playing Serena Williams at Wimbledon has been tantamount to an on-court death sentence. The 40-year-old American has won seven singles titles (and seven doubles titles) in 20 visits. But, as recently as a month ago, there was doubt that we would ever see her on the grass at the All England Club again – or perhaps any tennis court. She left Wimbledon distraught last year after slipping and aggravating a hamstring injury in the first round. She hasn’t played a competitive singles match since.
But the lure of Wimbledon – and a chance to win that elusive, record-equalling 24th major title – proved too much. And she is not the only big name making a welcome return to SW19. Andy Murray, the 35-year-old, two-time Wimbledon champion, is back again, and in the best form since he had his second hip operation – the “resurfacing” – in 2019.
On grass in Stuttgart earlier this month, he beat Stefanos Tsitsipas, the world No 5, and Nick Kyrgios, and improved his ranking to 47. Murray has been hampered of late by an abdominal injury but will still be the favourite against Australia’s James Duckworth in the first round at Wimbledon.
For Andrew Castle, the BBC commentator, the big unknown is Serena Williams’s form: “I thought Serena was done. I was genuinely surprised,” he says. “I don’t know if she’s capable of winning another grand slam or having a great run, or whether she’s here to hit some tennis balls and say goodbye on the 100th anniversary of Centre Court. But she’s not somebody that normally turns up to make up the numbers. So whatever her plans are, I suppose they’ll reveal themselves soon.”
Williams, for her part, seems to be relaxed coming into Wimbledon. When she cancelled her practice session at the Eastbourne tournament, reporters were told she was “having the day off”. When asked about her preparations recently, she said: “After I couldn’t play [at the US Open in] New York, I just went cold turkey of not working out, and it felt good.”
Murray, too, has been keen to play down expectations. While he is confident he has played enough matches going into Wimbledon, he is not predicting that he can make a deep run into the second week. “I wouldn’t say that,” he said this month. “I haven’t shown that in the last few years. My goal is just to try to get to the startline in a good place physically and give myself the best chance to do well.”
Andrew Castle believes that’s a bluff on Murray’s part. “Obviously I know an awful lot more about Andy and what his intentions are,” he says. “And his intentions are to win the tournament. There’s probably only five or six people max that I would put ahead of him.”
There will be a distinct poignancy to the appearances of Williams and Murray. Add to that the revival of 36-year-old Rafa Nadal, who has not won Wimbledon since 2010 but who – foot injury permitting – is back to his most dominant form, and has claimed the first two grand slams of 2022.
All of these players are of an age and infirmity that, if they lose, could possibly make it their final Wimbledon. When asked about retirement, Williams is adamant that she’ll keep her plans to herself.
“If I ever say farewell,” she said last year, “I wouldn’t tell anyone.”