Crying as she attempted to serve through what appeared to be an ankle injury, Williams tumbled to the ground and, with a shriek, had no option but to throw in the towel. A sad end to a quest that was eagerly anticipated to be one of the storylines of the tournament.
Williams had entered the match with hefty strapping on her right thigh, but the freak injury was unconnected. Just after gaining the upper hand to move 3-1 up with an early break of Sasnovich’s serve, Williams slipped while hitting an innocuous forehand midway through her own follow-up service game, prompting an immediate grimace.
For some time she stood stock still, staring at the ground in alarm, before meekly serving out – and losing – the remaining two points, then calling the trainer onto court and departing with her for treatment.
The extent of the limp when she returned a few minutes later told a story of its own. Williams could barely walk, let alone move even vaguely freely.
She attempted to carry on, but was powerless to prevent Sasnovich holding serve and, by the time it was the American’s service game, the tears were flowing.
Retirement was the only option and capped a shocking hour on Centre Court after France’s Adrian Mannarino had slipped and injured his knee in the preceding match when a set to the good against Roger Federer. Like Williams, he was forced to withdraw.
The two retirements prompted Andy Murray to speak out, writing on social media: “Brutal for Serena Williams but Centre Court is extremely slippy out there. Not easy to move out there.”
Speaking on court immediately after her sudden triumph, Sasnovich, the world No 100 from Belarus, said: “I’m so sad for Serena. She’s a great champion. It happens sometimes in tennis but all the best for her recovery.”
This was so far from what the Wimbledon crowd had hoped for when they settled into their seats. It is 23 years since Williams first graced SW19 for her debut at a tournament that has proved the most successful of her career.
Yet for all that vast experience it was not only the playing surface that may have been feeling a touch green for this first-round encounter, given Williams had not played a match on grass for two years.
She has cut down her tournament time significantly since then, focusing so fully on grand slams that she did not even prepare for this opener with a single competitive match since losing in the fourth round of the French Open earlier this month. She has also opted to miss the Olympics in favour of peaking for the US Open.
For four years now, Court’s record has sat tantalisingly within touching distance but persistently elusive. Williams’ own tally has remained stubbornly stuck on 23 ever since giving birth to her daughter Olympia in September 2017.
As the years go by – and she creeps closer to her 40th birthday in September – the sense of haste only increases. This will be the record-breaking slam. Or this one. Or this.
A finalist on her past two visits to the All-England Club and unbeaten before finals weekend since 2014, every summer there remains a sense that Wimbledon is the most likely place to deliver the goods – this year perhaps even more so than usual.
Not only does the speed of the court aid her big serve and allow her to shorten points, but the absence of Simona Halep and Naomi Osaka had appeared to give Williams an opportunity she perhaps will never be granted again.
It all meant her high standing – and the expectation that comes with it – rather defied her official status as sixth seed at this tournament, although speaking on the eve of competition, she insisted that is nothing new.
“I’ve had a big X on my back since ’99, since I won the US Open,” she said. “When players play me that hard every single tournament, every single match, every single grand slam, it just doesn’t matter where, you just get better.”
Unfortunately, Sasnovich barely even had the chance to do so. The tennis world will hope this is not the last we see of Williams at Wimbledon.