LONDON: US player Serena Williams reacts as she withdraws from her women's singles first round match against Belarus's Aliaksandra Sasnovich on the second day of the 2021 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Tennis Club in Wimbledon, southwest London, on Tuesday. - AFP

LONDON: Serena Williams's innocuous slip that ended her Wimbledon campaign at the first hurdle symbolized the manner in which her powers have been steadily sliding away. The question is whether the "heartbroken" 39-year-old American legend wants her fans' last memory of her on a stage where she has won seven singles titles to be that of her eyes-filled with tears as she limped off.

"I feel sad for Serena," said 2013 Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli on the BBC after Williams was forced to quit her match with Aliaksandra Sasnovich after just six games. "I sincerely hope it is not the last time we see her at Wimbledon. The way she waved at the crowd, and put her hand on the heart to show her appreciation, I hope it is not a farewell."

The problem for Williams is the target of equaling Margaret Court's all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles looks more remote than ever. Back in 2017, when she won the Australian Open to move to within one of the controversial Court's tally, she looked odds on to achieve that and more.

Even after taking time out that year to have her baby daughter Olympia she was expected to return as dominant as before with few likely rivals on the horizon. However, since then it has been a tale of regression by degrees from reaching four finals -- two at Wimbledon (2018/19) and two at the US Open (2018/19) -- and falling short every time.

Last year, albeit one in which Wimbledon did not take place due to the coronavirus pandemic, her fortunes dipped even lower as for the first time since 2006 she failed to reach a Grand Slam final. Despite the hits Williams remained outwardly confident at least that she was still capable of equaling Court's mark even after withdrawing from her second round match at the 2020 French Open. "I'm pretty good at it still and I'm so close to some things, so I feel like I'm almost there," she said. "I think that's what keeps me going."

'Still the greatest'

However, as injuries mount up on her those who have been down that route themselves say the player may not wish to accept that time has run out. "The last thing a champion like Serena wants to do is to go out in a walkover," three-time Wimbledon champion Boris Becker told the BBC. "But you have got to get used to the fact she is past 30 -- I won't put a number on her age! -- and now this means another year of coming back from injuries. It is sad to see but unfortunately time waits on no man or woman."

One thing that could keep Williams plugging away is the fluidity of the women's game and the lack of a dominant successor to her -- she is still ranked in the top 10. Bartoli remains convinced the elusive Grand Slam title will come her way. "I still feel she can win that 24th major, she has it inside her," said Bartoli. "The amount of injury and bad luck of sliding is such a shame."

Williams said in her pre Wimbledon press conference she has always had an "X on her back" since she won her first US Open in 1999. Her fans both inside and outside the game will pray she does not prolong her career in the style of other sports stars who fear they will miss the fix of the adulation of the crowd when they return to the banality of domestic life.

For one of her greatest cheerleaders, fellow tennis legend Chris Evert, Williams's legacy is assured. "To me, her legacy is already sealed," said Evert. "If she never wins another Grand Slam, if she never matches Margaret Court, (it) doesn't matter. She's still the greatest." - AFP