An injury ends Serena Williams’ Wimbledon hopes but gives Roger Federer a reprieve

Serena Williams stumbles during a singles first-round match at Wimbledon
Serena Williams stumbles during a singles first-round match at Wimbledon on Tuesday.
(Kirsty Wigglesworth / Associated Press)

With unfortunate symmetry, retirement from injury salvaged one all-time great’s chances at the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world and doomed another’s.

Roger Federer and Serena Williams, both 39 and in the twilight of their dazzling careers, found themselves on opposite sides of fortune’s wheel Tuesday on the rain-slicked grass of Wimbledon. Federer moved into the second round when France’s Adrian Mannarino suffered an untimely slip late in their seesaw Centre Court contest, whereas Williams bade a tearful exit after her stumble in the match immediately following.

“This is obviously terrible that it’s back-to-back matches and it hits Serena as well,” Federer said afterward. “Oh my God, I can’t believe it.”

Williams, a seven-time Wimbledon singles champion, was aiming for a record-equaling 24th Grand Slam event singles title on a surface that suits her fast, aggressive game. But it was also a surface that undid her Tuesday evening, under the closed Centre Court roof, when she lost her footing while returning a shot to Belarussian player Aliaksandra Sasnovich, 27.


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Her right leg clearly bothering her, Williams lost the game, took a medical timeout and tried to soldier on through several more points. At 3-all and behind a point on her service, the American star conceded to injury and a British crowd that has not always embraced her so warmly in the past, during her most dominant years, showered her with applause and admiration.

“Feeling the extraordinary warmth and support of the crowd today when I walked on — and off — the court meant the world to me,” Williams said in a statement afterward.

She already had revealed just before the tournament began that she would not be playing in the Tokyo Olympics for undisclosed reasons — possibly because she would not be allowed to bring her young daughter along because of coronavirus protocols. Now she’ll need to use the time to nurse her injury and prepare for a last shot at Slam glory in 2021 at the U.S. Open in two months’ time.

Federer’s hopes of adding a ninth Wimbledon singles trophy to his collection remained alive, if decidedly shaky, after a performance Tuesday that offered flashes of the genius fans have swooned over throughout his long career but also a series of mistimed forehands, sprayed first serves and other unwelcome errors.

The standing ovation from fans who treat him like a hometown hero, sometimes even over their real hometown heroes, seemed to buoy him through the first set, which he won 6-4 by finally breaking Mannarino’s serve after botching several previous opportunities. The 33-year-old Frenchman was unfazed, taking the second set in a tiebreak and then the third. Murmurs over a potentially monumental upset swept through the crowd.


But the deficit seemed to loosen something in the Swiss maestro, who began swinging more freely.

Roger Federer talks to Adrian Mannarino as he lies on the ground in pain during their first-round match.
Roger Federer talks to Adrian Mannarino as he lies on the ground in pain during their first-round match at Wimbledon on Tuesday.
(Kristy Wigglesworth / Associated Press)

“I tried to definitely mix up my game a little bit more again towards the fourth set because clearly it wasn’t working in the third,” Federer said in his post-match news conference. “He was getting too comfortable from the baseline, taking charge from there.”

Federer saved a break point at the start of the fourth set, closing out the game with a lovely volley, then took the next game from Mannarino on the strength of a running cross-court forehand winner, a lucky net cord and then another successful foray to the net after forcing his opponent to scramble to retrieve a drop shot.

Serving at 4-2, 15-0, Federer hit a sharply angled forehand that wrong-footed Mannarino and caused him to twist his right knee and collapse to the grass, where he lay in obvious discomfort until Federer and the umpire both came over to check on him. Mannarino was tended to by a trainer, but he barely moved his legs when play resumed and retired from the match after Federer, who went on to win the fourth set 6-2, served an ace for the first point of the fifth.

“It’s awful,” Federer said during a courtside interview in which he credited Mannarino with being “the better player” in the match. “It shows one shot can change the outcome of a match, a season, a career, so I wish him all the best and I hope he recovers quickly so we see him back on the courts because look, he could’ve won the match at the end.”

Despite gloomy weather, Wimbledon — tennis’ most prestigious tournament — kicks off to the delight of players and fans, who haven’t been on site since 2019.

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Although some of the other players have complained that the grass is slicker this year — Centre Court “is extremely slippy out there. Not easy to move,” Andy Murray tweeted — Federer is less certain.

“I do feel it feels a tad more slippery maybe under the roof. I don’t know if it’s just a gut feeling,” he said. “You do have to move very, very carefully out there. If you push too hard in the wrong moments, you do go down.”

His next opponent is another French player, the veteran Richard Gasquet.

Williams might have departed prematurely, but other Americans met with more success Tuesday, including her sister, 41-year-old Venus Williams, who defeated Romania’s Mihaela Buzarnescu 7-5, 4-6, 6-3. Coco Gauff, 17, won her first-round match in straight sets, and rising star Sebastian Korda, 20, upset 15th-seeded Alex De Minaur of Australia 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5).