In the longest game of the women’s singles draw to date, Tan, who is world no -5 1-6 7-6 (10-7).
This clearly wasn’t the best performance of Williams’ illustrious career, nor would she ever be allowed time off the game.
But when the roof closed and the lights came on on Center Court – a scene that caused oohs and ahs from the crowd – the two players put on a dramatic show.
In the end, it was Tan who stormed Williams’ comeback party, producing multiple shots that even earned applause from her opponent on the other side of the net.
“For my first Wimbledon – it’s wow. Just wow,” Tan said speechless in her on-pitch interview.
Few of those present could disagree.
As for Williams, who turned 40 last September, she refuses to give up her quest for a record-breaking 24th Grand Slam title, five years after winning her last at the Australian Open.
“Who knows where I’ll show up,” she told reporters when asked about her future, even suggesting an appearance at the US Open later this year could be on the cards.
“The US Open – which is the first place I’ve won a Grand Slam – is always very special,” Williams added. “Your first time is always special. There’s definitely a lot of motivation to get better and play at home.”
Rust was to be expected during William’s Wimbledon return and she needed time to find some sense of rhythm against Tan. Prior to Tuesday, her only competitive appearance over the past year had been two doubles games at Eastbourne last week.
She was broken in the first game but had started to find her feet by the fourth – hitting her groundstrokes cleaner as she hit back with a double break from Tan’s serve.
However, the first set proved defining for the match as a whole: just as Williams seemed to have the upper hand on her opponent, Tan fought her way back into the fray.
That was the case multiple times in the final set, as Williams led twice with a break and then took an early lead in the deciding super tie-break, only for Tan to grab 10 of the next 13 points and earn the biggest win of her career.
Tuesday’s game was a clear stylistic contrast. Williams’ attacking performance was hit-and-miss as she landed 61 winners – a mix of pounding ground shots and sweet-hitting drive volleys – punctuated with 54 unforced errors.
Tan, on the other hand, was more conservative and relied heavily on her slice to move Williams around the court – a tactic the American later admitted surprised her.
“I think I could have played any person [it] probably would have had a different outcome,” she said. “I knew there was a lot of slice but not that much on the forehand. I definitely had to try to find my rhythm. You know, hindsight is 20/20.”
The positive for Williams, who was eliminated in the first round by Aliaksandra Sasnovich at Wimbledon last year after slipping and injuring her leg, was that her body held up well to Tan.
“Physically, I was fine,” she added. “In the last few points I really felt it. But I’m moving well, I’m getting a lot of balls back. I’m moving well in training.
“It wasn’t surprising to me because I knew I was doing so well. I wasn’t training for a three hour match. I think I made a mistake there.”
Ahead of Wimbledon, Williams reflected on how tennis is no longer her only focus in life. Off court, motherhood, her venture company, and the release of the film King Richard, which she helped produce, have all taken up her time.
“To be honest, it was totally different. Part of me feels like that’s a little bit more of a part of my life now than tournaments,” she said last week.
But that doesn’t mean Williams is entirely ready to bid farewell to tennis — even if she’s still undecided on when and where her next gig will be.
And if anything, losing to Tan lit the tennis fires a little bit.
“It definitely gets me going to the practice courts,” she said, “because when you’re not playing badly and you’re that close … it’s actually like, ‘Okay, Serena, you can do that if you want. ‘”