MIKE DICKSON: Serena Williams’ box-office appeal will always outweigh her diva-like tendencies

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The morning after Serena Williams‘ night before, and various theories were doing the rounds within the confines of the All England Club.

One was that it had been a good thing the American did not storm to a commanding victory in the first round against Harmony Tan of France.

The idea goes that it would not have reflected well on the women’s tour if a 40-year-old had returned from a year’s absence, with seemingly limited physical preparation, and won as if she had never been away.

Serena Williams was beaten in the first round at Wimbledon after a year away from the court

Serena Williams was beaten in the first round at Wimbledon after a year away from the court

The 23-time Grand Slam champion was beaten by French outsider Harmony Tan on Centre Court

The 23-time Grand Slam champion was beaten by French outsider Harmony Tan on Centre Court

That was not meant to be a slight on the seven-time champion, for whom this may have been a farewell to the Centre Court.

For what she showed on Tuesday evening — and there will be the TV ratings to back it up — is that she will be irreplaceable when she goes.

Williams teeters on the brink of retirement at a time when the women’s top 10 has never been more anonymous. The strength in depth on the WTA circuit may be deeper than ever, as shown by world No 115 Tan, but it is short of headline acts.

Williams teeters on the brink of retirement at a time when the women's top 10 has never been more anonymous

Williams teeters on the brink of retirement at a time when the women’s top 10 has never been more anonymous

The No 2 seed at this tournament is Anett Kontaveit, for example. She was beaten in straight sets yesterday by world No 97 Jule Niemeier of Germany.

Admirable pro though Kontaveit undoubtedly is, the 26-year-old has never been past the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam and could hardly be described as a household name outside her native Estonia.

She would have been unlikely to reverse what looks like an interesting trend early in the tournament, which is seeing smaller crowds than the last pre-pandemic year of 2019.

There may be multiple reasons for this: looming recession, the weather, user-unfriendly ticket systems and Covid worries, to list a few. Another will be the absence of Roger Federer, because you can never have too many authentic superstars with pulling power.

Her exit from the Championships is a huge blow to the tournament already missing a host of top names

Her exit from the Championships is a huge blow to the tournament already missing a host of top names 

Serena is one of those rarefied few, and her early exit is a blow to a tournament already missing some of the next bracket, including men’s world No 1 Daniil Medvedev and last year’s runner-up Matteo Berrettini (for very different reasons).

Her box-office appeal will always outweigh her somewhat diva-like tendencies, which can be exasperating to those who work in the game.

Playing doubles in Eastbourne last week, where she made a heavy demand for hotel rooms to accommodate her large entourage, her partner Ons Jabeur was said to be agasp at the way Serena could dictate things like the length and timing of press conferences.

Yet, for all the hassle and the hubris, any event would love to have her because she is a unique source of drama and intrigue.

Williams was deliberately evasive when asked on Tuesday night about her future

Williams was deliberately evasive when asked on Tuesday night about her future

The 40-year-old may find the US Open, which begins in New York on August 29, hard to resist

The 40-year-old may find the US Open, which begins in New York on August 29, hard to resist

She was almost comically hopeless in the first two games against Tan, but gradually roused herself in that inimitable way towards the climax of the match.

A great show was put on, and there was no way she would want to damage her wider brand by going out with a whimper.

Williams remains the world’s highest-profile female athlete, occupying a similar space in the US to the likes of Michael Jordan. The only female rival she might have in the states is Megan Rapinoe.

And there is always something grimly compelling about a legend trying to hold back the passage of time, an opponent nobody beats.

Tan produced a superb and battling display to knock out Williams in the first round on Tuesday

Tan produced a superb and battling display to knock out Williams in the first round on Tuesday

She was deliberately evasive on Tuesday night about her future, but declared that playing at the US Open (another great platform for her brand) was appealing.

‘There’s definitely, you know, lots of motivation to get better and to play at home,’ said Williams, referring to New York in late August.

If she wants to be more than a tribute act to her old self — which effectively she was against Tan, for all the drama — then she will need to play tournaments beforehand.

She must know that, and you will be able to tell her real intentions and motivations by whether she is prepared to play at less glamorous locations in advance.



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