As Serena Williams walked onto the court on the U.S. Open this week, the query was how the best player in modern tennis would handle the pressures of what she said may very well be her last Grand Slam tournament.
She had looked rusty and slow all summer, but over the course of 4 days and two prime-time matches, it looked just like the 40-year-old just might mount a magical, storybook run for a twenty fourth major title.
That dream ended on Friday night in a heartbreaking three-set loss to Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia. To the tip, the just about 24,000 fans who packed Arthur Ashe Stadium shouted and cheered her every point as she fought against an opponent who was 11 years younger.
“It’s been probably the most incredible ride and journey I’ve ever been on in my life,” Williams, wiping tears, said on court after the match.
The loss, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-1, likely spelled the tip of a 27-year profession that without end modified the world’s perception and understanding of girls — especially Black women — in sports. The highlight reels will show that Williams went kicking and screaming, saving five match points, blasting away to the tip, making every stroke count because the match passed the three-hour mark.
“I don’t surrender,” Williams said. “Definitely wasn’t giving up tonight.”
Williams has been the most popular ticket in Latest York this week and that continued on Friday in a match that was witnessed by a few of the biggest names in sports and popular culture. And for long spells Williams delivered what they got here for — the facility and ferocity, the precision and keenness for the sport which have characterised her profession for 1 / 4 of a century.
On one other night, in one other season years ago, it may need been enough. But on tonight, a couple of weeks before her forty first birthday, Williams couldn’t maintain the rarefied level of play that has powered so lots of her victories. She served for each sets and had 4 set points within the second only to let Tomljanovic, who had never played on this court in the largest stadium in the game, climb out of a 5-3 hole in the primary and second sets. She matched Williams’s power and edged her in each steeliness and accuracy, and likewise faced down a crowd that was entirely in Williams’s favor.
“I just thought she would beat me,” Tomljanovic said. “She’s the best of all time, period.”
Williams’s loss got here on the identical court where she won her first major title in 1999 on the age of 17. The fans this week got here to Ashe to say goodbye, but with each match it was clear that nobody desired to see Williams go, not from the tournament she has won six times and never from tennis. Just 24 hours before Friday’s match, Williams had lost a doubles match together with her sister Venus Williams. And as play moved right into a third set on Friday, Serena Williams struggled to catch her breath and sustain with the pace of the match.
Her play this week though could make people wonder if she was really able to quit. Through three matches and eight sets of tennis over five days that few will soon forget, Williams proved that she could still be great on a tennis court. Nonetheless, she has said that she desires to have a second child and can’t accomplish that while traveling the world and competing.
Serena Williams on the U.S. Open
The U.S. Open may very well be the tennis star’s last skilled tournament after a protracted profession of breaking boundaries and obliterating expectations.
She could at all times decide to return to tennis. But in an essay published in Vogue magazine last month, Williams wrote that she was “evolving away from tennis” — effectively announcing that she planned to retire. And in talking to reporters after matches on the Open, she has not altered the plan.
Williams has played infrequently since injuring her hamstring at Wimbledon in 2021. She lost in the primary round at Wimbledon in June, and after her announcement in August that she can be playing her final few tournaments, a fortuitous run on the U.S. Open looked unlikely. In three matches in Toronto and Cincinnati knee tendinitis kept her from moving well. Williams, though, kept working, specializing in improving her lateral movement, and attempting to regain her feel for the ball and the timing that allowed her to play with unmatched ferocity during a profession spanning parts of 4 a long time.
Williams had a golden opportunity to take the primary set after breaking Tomljanovic for a 5-3 lead. But she didn’t close it out and coming up short appeared to rattle her. She committed a series of errors, hitting balls long and into the web as Tomljanovic pounced on her opportunity and finished off the set with a forehand cross-court winner that Williams barely moved for.
It was a shocking end to a set that in the course of the first eight games saw Williams, the 23-time Grand Slam champion, repeatedly send the big-hitting Australian backpedaling on so many points, moving her across the baseline and riding the energy of the group to achieve the early edge.
For the primary half-hour the match looked destined to follow the pattern of her first two, with Williams mostly recuperating with each set. But two errors on one in all her signature shots — her swinging forehand volley — and a serve that became unreliable and wobbly did her in. After 49 minutes, she was in a hole.
Few players react to a deficit the best way Williams does. When she is healthy and in form, Williams takes losing a set almost as an insult, an attack on an aura of invincibility that she is going to stop at almost nothing to take care of.
And that is strictly what she did Friday night. Her grunts grew louder, her serves harder and more precise. She dove across the pavement for one volley, and stabbed and thumped others. She surged to a 4-0 lead, then stumbled briefly but regained her form in time to get to the brink of drawing even. She held 4 set points at 5-2, and served for the set over again at 5-3, but couldn’t make the shots she needed to when she needed them most. In some way, though, Williams got here alive within the tiebreaker, pushing into the court and layering her shots so near the lines and clinching it with a stiff backhand return of Tomljanovic’s serve that the Australian couldn’t get back.
The Latest York crowd, which has not at all times been in her corner, especially during a few of her ugly run-ins with officials at this tournament, now smothered her with every ounce of sound it could muster, making the match as hard for Tomljanovic because it could.
“A lot support, a lot love,” Williams would say later. “The entire crowd was really wanting to push me past the road. I’m so thankful and grateful for that.”
Onto the third set they went. Over again Williams took an early lead, breaking Tomljanovic’s serve in the primary game but then frittering away her advantage as her 40-year-old gas tank edged toward empty.
Tomljanovic reeled off six straight games. Within the last one, Williams ripped a ferocious forehand winner and unleashed a throat-busting scream, sending the stadium right into a frenzy over again. And over again, Tomljanovic let the noise fall over her and set herself to the duty at hand. It will take her six match points to induce that last error from Williams, after which with one final stroke into the web it was done.
Talking to the group through tears, Williams said her tennis profession had been the ride of a lifetime.
“It began with my parents, and so they deserve the whole lot. I’m really grateful to them,” she said. “These are completely satisfied tears.”
She gave a nod to her sister: “I wouldn’t be Serena if there wasn’t Venus,” she said.
She has said she planned to concentrate on growing her family and dealing together with her enterprise capital firm. But as she played three rounds of tennis that conjured so many moments of the Serena Williams of old, even she had struggled before Friday night to say firmly that tennis was gone for good. Then she nearly did.
“Clearly I’m still capable,” she said. “It takes so much greater than that. I’m able to, like, be a mom, explore a special version of Serena.”