Friends and family all lingered near the player exit at Arthur Ashe Stadium, at least three dozen deep, to witness Serena Williams walking out of the U.S. Open—and almost certainly stepping away from her singular tennis career—one last time. Ajla Tomljanovic from Australia beat Williams 7-5, 7, 6-7, 4, 6-1 in an epic three-hour, five-minute match in New York City. Those close to Williams felt that it was appropriate to pay tribute to Williams’ fine last effort. Venus was a close friend of Williams and shared her feelings with Billie Jean King. Singer Ciara was a friend of Williams and stood next to an elevator with her husband Russell Wilson (Broncos quarterback). Serena’s husband, Alexis Ohanian, entered the waiting area, holding their daughter Olympia, who was wearing braids with beads, just like her mom and aunt did during their early years on the pro tennis tour. Olympia gave Ciara a fist bump.
It was anything but funereal. This is what happens when Serena Williams loses at the U.S. Open. For example back in 2015, after a shocking semifinal loss to Italy’s Roberta Vinci cost her a calendar-year Grand Slam, Williams darted out of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center as fast as she could. “I don’t want to talk about how disappointing it is for me,” she said in her curt post-match press conference that day. “If you have any other questions, I’m open for that.”
This was not a religious congregation. Everyone was smiling, laughing and hugging one another, although some people did cry. It was appropriate that the joyous tone was so evident. For the probable last match of Williams’ career encapsulated all her greatness.
In her third-round fight against Tomljanovic, she fought hard and won. Although Williams was down 5-1 after the third set and Tomljanovic served to win it, very few people in the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd who wanted to see Williams triumph, thought the match would be a loss. Why would you, when on Tomljanovic’s first match point, Williams smashed a backhand winner at the net. When on Tomljanovic’s second match point, a Williams forehand sent Tomljanovic scurrying deep to her left: her backhand stab fell well short. When on Tomljanovic’s third match point, Williams sent Tomljanovic’s serve right back past her for a winner. When on Tomljanovic’s fourth match point, Williams forced another Tomljanovic error. Or when on Tomljanovic’s fifth match point, Williams went for an inside-out forehand return on a soft Tomljanovic second-serve. Williams won another match point with an aggressive win.
Finally, on Tomljanovic’s sixth match point, Williams smacked a forehand into the net to end it. This game was 22 points in length. Williams was able to score three break points but Tomljanovic held firm. The Tina Turner song, “The Best,” played at high volume in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Tomljanovic received her dues from the cheering crowd after Williams left the stage. The crowd cheered Tomljanovic’s service errors throughout the match. She won the first point. The only ones cheering her were those who were seated in her box.
Continue reading: Serena Williams’s Gift to the World
One patron vocally expressed his love for Serena during Tomljanovic’s serve, a breach of Tennis Etiquette 101. Tomljanovic was unable to defend, but took the point. Tomljanovic approached chair umpire one time during the match to report the disturbing noise. Her booing was a result.
She was able to understand the pro-Serena passion. “I thought she would beat me,” Tomljanovic said in her post-match interview on-court, to laughs. “So the pressure wasn’t on me. She’s Serena. She was in a great position to win, even down to the final point. Even when she’s down 5-1.”
Williams lost her opening set for the first time in her last U.S. Open. Williams took a lead of 4-0 going into the second. But, Williams was unable to hold the momentum and the set went wild. Williams won the first set 5-0. However, Tomljanovic broke Williams instead. She then returned to force a tiebreaker. Tomljanovic had all the momentum, but Williams wasn’t about to end her career losing a tiebreaker. She won the last two points of the tiebreaker on Tomljanovic’s serve; one was a forehand winner on the 20th shot of a rally, that caused a near-explosion in the stadium.
Williams quit tennis to give thrills. She even allowed some room for wiggle-room after the match. “You never know,” she said about a possible comeback. Australia continues to be her favorite place. But when TIME asked her last week if she’d made one final trip to Melbourne, where she’s won seven Australian Open titles, she responded: “I’m not doing that.”
The US Open saw unprecedented excitement when she performed her last dance. The US Open had a record single-day attendance of 72,039 people on Friday. This included both the night and day sessions. StubHub reports that ticket sales rose 20% following Williams’ win Wednesday night. Twitter announced on Friday night that Williams was the “most tweeted about female athlete” of all-time.
Williams was asked what her proudest moment in tennis was during her last press conference. Williams cited her 2015 French Open win. Because she was sick, she sat down in her fetal position at that tournament. The locker room was filled with tears and she began to shiver. Williams’s mother and sister, Isha (an older sibling), had to take her out of the drenched clothes she was wearing. She couldn’t do it herself. Patrick Mouratoglou at that time was Williams’ coach. The next day, Williams won in straight sets.
Williams said she’ll spend part of her first day as a retired athlete, Saturday, going out for karaoke. “I just honestly am so grateful I had this moment,” she said, “and that I’m Serena.”
She left the interview area and walked down an Ashe hallway. She embraced the head WTA press officer, who’s accompanied Williams to countless interviews over the years, near the locker room. He grew more excited. Serena, carrying a pink Gatorade empty bottle, turned around and entered the waiting room. The crowd applauded and praised her. They formed a kind of receiving line for well-wishers. She told herself she needed to keep her cool, and wiped away every tear from each eye. Caroline Wozniacki (the former world number one), was with her. She walked outside to huddle with Caroline Wozniacki. 1 who’s now retired. They enjoyed chatting about the past. “That’s the most legendary night ever,” Williams said. They didn’t seem to be talking about tennis.
After a few final pictures with her coach, her agent and other team members, Serena Williams—the greatest female athlete of all-time, perhaps even the greatest athlete ever— walked out of gates and into a waiting black SUV. The car moved west at 11:26 pm on September 2, 2022. To good-earned Karaoke. And towards Serena’a new life.
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