The second installment of “Isner/Mahut” may still be the match today with the biggest curiosity factor going into it, but plenty of those watching Wimbledon were just as intrigued to see how defending champion Serena Williams would fare in her opening round encounter against Aravane Rezai of France. In a way, it was a fitting matchup considering both players have had well-documented off-court struggles this year. But even though the match result may not have been a surprise, what happened afterwards certainly was.
Both Rezai and Williams showed flashes of brilliance and mediocrity that saw both gain and then lose momentum throughout the match. After losing serve in a lengthy opening game, Serena found her serve later on, breaking back and then breaking again to close out the first set 6-3. For a moment, it appeared Williams might run away with this one like she did (at least for awhile) in her match against Vera Zvonareva at Eastbourne. But the second set saw Rezai up her level while Williams’s own effort dropped. And when Rezai cruised through the last two games to take the second set 6-3, it seemed that maybe Serena’s comeback in England might just end up being cut short.
Even though the Centre Court crowd cheered for Rezai to pull off the upset, she couldn’t perform when it mattered down the stretch. After Serena jumped out to a 4-1 lead in the final set, a slew of errors from Rezai allowed the still shaky looking Williams enough breathing room to serve for the match at 5-1, and when she hit her 13th and final ace to close it out 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, Serena raised her fist in triumph, not just for winning the match, but for actually being able to stand on Centre Court once again.
After the handshake, Williams started weeping on court and struggled to hold back tears in an off-court interview with the BBC where she said, “I usually don’t cry, I don’t understand it. It’s been so hard I never dreamt I’d be here. I just wanted to win at least one match here and since I’m not playing doubles it was a really big win for me. It’s been so hard and has been a disaster year. To be able to come back at Wimbledon is pretty awesome. I didn’t expect to play or do anything I’m just excited. She is a really good player I knew it wouldn’t be easy.”
Who knows how far Serena will get at this year’s Wimbledon, but it was her show of emotion that may end up being the moment of the Championships, the way all of the best moments in life are — unexpected, heartfelt and real.