WIMBLEDON, England — If Serena Williams returned to the All England Club looking for an eighth Wimbledon singles title, she has a very long way to go. But if she came back at age 40 looking for a better memory than what she took from last year’s tournament, she achieved it, scrapping and believing through the peaks and valleys of three sets on Tuesday, but ultimately losing to Harmony Tan, a little-known but tactically astute Frenchwoman who beat Williams, 7-5, 1-6, 7-6 (7), in the first round.
It was a ragged performance from Williams, the greatest women’s player of her era, as she tried to shake off the rust while attempting to solve the myriad riddles posed by the 115th-ranked Tan.
That was certainly understandable. This was Williams’s first singles match in a year, and the last one had ended in pain and tears on this same Centre Court when she tore a hamstring during her first-round match and had to retire against Aliaksandra Sasnovich.
Tan, coached by the 1998 Wimbledon finalist Nathalie Tauziat, lacks pure power and has a puffball second serve, but she understands tennis geometry and has an unconventional tool set that is well-suited to grass. From the start, she kept Williams guessing and stretching, mixing often-exquisite drop shots with forays to the net; towering lobs with counterpunched backhand passing shots; sideswiping forehand slices with looped topspin.
No one but Tan knew what was coming (and there were a few errors, too). Williams, who has lost to such variety-loving players even in her prime, often looked befuddled early. She also looked as tight as piano wire, struggling to let her natural power flow and missing swing volleys and approach shots by the bunch while laboring to move laterally.
Tan will face Sara Sorribes Tormo, a Spaniard seeded 32nd, in the second round.