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

The morning after Serena Williams’ night, several theories circulated within the confines of the All England Club.

One was that it was a good thing the American didn’t storm to an impressive first-round win against France’s Harmony Tan.

The idea is that it wouldn’t have worked out well for the women’s tour if a 40-year-old had returned from a year-long absence, with seemingly limited physical preparation, and won as if she’d never been away.

Serena Williams was defeated in the first round at Wimbledon after a year out of court

Serena Williams was defeated in the first round at Wimbledon after a year out of court

The 23-time Grand Slam champion was defeated on Center Court by French outsider Harmony Tan

The 23-time Grand Slam champion was defeated on Center Court by French outsider Harmony Tan

That was no disdain for the seven-time champion, for whom this may have been a farewell to Center Court.

Because what she showed on Tuesday night – and the ratings will back it up – is that if she goes, she will be irreplaceable.

Williams is teetering on the brink of retirement at a time when the top 10 women have never been more anonymous. The power in depth on the WTA circuit may be deeper than ever, as world number 115 Tan shows, but it lacks headline acts.

Williams teetering on the brink of retirement at a time when the top 10 women have never been more anonymous

Williams teetering on the brink of retirement at a time when the top 10 women have never been more anonymous

For example, the number 2 of this tournament is Anett Kontaveit. She was defeated in two sets on Wednesday by world champion Jule Niemeier from Germany 97.

While Kontaveit is undoubtedly an admirable pro, the 26-year-old has never made it past the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam and can hardly be described as a household name outside her native Estonia.

She was unlikely to reverse what appears to be an interesting trend early in the tournament, namely a smaller audience than in the last pre-pandemic year of 2019.

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

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

There could be several reasons for this: looming recession, the weather, user-unfriendly ticket systems and Covid concerns, to name a few. Another will be the absence of Roger Federer as you can never have enough authentic superstars with allure.

Serena is one of those rare ones, and her early departure is a blow to a tournament already missing some of the next round, including the men’s world No. 1 Daniil Medvedev and last year’s No. 2 Matteo Berrettini (for very different reasons ).

Her appeal will always outweigh her slightly diva-esque tendencies, which can be irritating for those working in the game.

Her partner Ons Jabeur played doubles in Eastbourne last week, where she was in high demand for hotel rooms to house her large entourage.

But for all the fuss and hubbub, any event would love to have her, as she is a unique source of drama and intrigue.

The 40-year-old has a hard time resisting the US Open, which starts on August 29 in New York

The 40-year-old has a hard time resisting the US Open, which starts on August 29 in New York

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

A great show was put on, and she wouldn’t want to hurt her wider brand in any way by going out with a wail.

Williams remains the world’s foremost female athlete, occupying a similar space in the US as Michael Jordan. The only female rival she has in the United States is Megan Rapinoe.

And there’s always something grim about a legend trying to stop the passage of time, an adversary that no one beats.

Tan produced an outstanding and combative display to knock out Williams in the first round on Tuesday

Tan produced an outstanding and combative display to knock out Williams in the first round on Tuesday

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

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

If she wants to be more than a tribute to her old self – who she was actually against Tan, despite all the drama – she’ll have to play tournaments beforehand.

She needs to know that, and you’ll be able to tell her real intentions and motivations by up front if she’s willing to play in less glamorous locations.

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