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Serena Williams Willed Her Solution to a Glorious Goodbye

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It was match point, which Serena Williams had faced again and again before. It was profession point, which was startlingly recent territory for certainly one of the best athletes of any era.

But Williams, on tonight like no other on the U.S. Open, remained true to herself and her competitive spirit on Friday, with the tip of her 27-year run as an expert tennis player suddenly becoming very real.

Yes, Ajla Tomljanovic was about to serve for a spot within the fourth round, at 40-30 with a 5-1 lead within the third set. But Williams, clearly weary after nearly three hours of corner-to-corner tennis, was not yet prepared to simply accept what looked inevitable.

She saved one match point with a swinging backhand volley. She saved a second with a cocksure forehand approach that Tomljanovic couldn’t handle. She saved a 3rd with a clean forehand return winner that had fans within the sold-out Arthur Ashe Stadium shouting: “Not yet! Not yet!”

“I’ve been down before,” Williams said later. “I feel in my profession I’ve never given up. In matches, I don’t quit. Definitely wasn’t giving up tonight.”

She saved a fourth match point. She saved a fifth, and by now it was clear, because the winners and bellows and clenched fists kept coming, that Williams would get a fitting finish.

A record-tying twenty fourth Grand Slam singles title in her farewell tournament at age 40 was at all times going to be a protracted shot. An inspiring last dance was no guarantee, either, given all of the matches and miles in her legs and all of the rust on her game in recent weeks.

But she salvaged it in Latest York. She conjured it with all of her pride, power and sheer will. She found a well-recognized gear within the second set of her opening-round victory over Danka Kovinic. And he or she stayed in that groove as she defeated the No. 2 seed Anett Kontaveit in the following round before coming up against Tomljanovic, a tall and chic baseliner who represents Australia but lives in Florida, and who was born and raised in Croatia.

Barring a significant change of heart from her far more famous opponent, Tomljanovic might be the reply to the trivia query “Who was the last player to face Serena Williams in an official match?”

But while Williams couldn’t fend off the sixth profession point, striking a low forehand into the web, she did strike a far more appropriate final note at Flushing Meadows than if she had chosen to forgo this final comeback.

Ultimately yr’s Wimbledon, she retired with a leg injury before the primary set of her first-round match was done, crying as she hobbled off the Center Court grass where she had won so often.

The U.S. Open was very likely the tennis star’s last skilled tournament after a protracted profession of breaking boundaries and obliterating expectations.

  • Glorious Goodbye: Whilst Serena Williams faced profession point, she placed on a gutsy display of the facility and resilience which have kept fans cheering for nearly 30 years.
  • The Magic Ends: Zoom into this composite photo to see details of Williams’s final moment on Ashe Stadium at this U.S. Open.
  • Her Fans: We asked readers to share their memories of watching Williams play and the emotions that she stirred. There was no shortage of submissions.
  • Sisterhood on the Court: Since Williams and her sister Venus burst onto the tennis scene within the Nineteen Nineties, their legacies have been tied to one another’s.

She was 39 then and took nearly one other yr to return to competition. But because the tears got here for a distinct reason on Friday night on court in her post-match interview, and however in her news conference, it was evident that she had gotten a measure of what she was trying to find by returning to play.

She gave herself a suitably grand stage to thank her fans and her family, including her parents, Richard Williams and Oracene Price, and her big sister, Venus Williams, who was watching from the players box just as she did when Serena won the family’s first Grand Slam singles title on the U.S. Open in 1999. They went on to win 29 more, Serena ending with 23 and Venus, though not yet retired, almost definitely ending with the seven she has now.

“I wouldn’t be Serena if there wasn’t Venus, so thanks, Venus,” Serena said. “She’s the one reason that Serena Williams ever existed.”

Though Williams was still struggling to make use of the word “retirement” herself on Friday, the WTA Tour was not because it congratulated Williams on a grand profession. Nor did Williams give herself much wiggle room when asked what it’d take to bring her back for more.

“I’m not fascinated by that; I at all times did love Australia, though,” she said with a smile, referring to the following Grand Slam tournament on the calendar: the Australian Open in January.

But that sounded far more playful than serious, and he or she soon turned reflective, talking about motherhood and life away from competition, which she has already experienced at length through the coronavirus pandemic and in her latest yr away from tennis.

“It takes a variety of work to get here,” she said of the U.S. Open. “Clearly, I’m still capable. It takes lots greater than that. I’m able to, like, be a mom, explore a distinct version of Serena. Technically, on this planet, I’m still super young, so I need to have just a little little bit of a life while I’m still walking.”

It’s Williams’s call, after all (after all!), nevertheless it seems the correct alternative and the correct time. Though she is correct that her level was often remarkably and surprisingly high this week, it’s also true that the last time she lost this early in singles on the U.S. Open was in her first Open appearance in singles in 1998.

Tomljanovic did herself proud on Friday, effectively countering Williams’s signature power and handling the deeply partisan and sometimes unsportsmanlike crowd with great composure and dignity. Fans cheered for Tomljanovic’s missed serves and errors, and with the match in its final stages, some shouted “Serena!” within the midst of her service motion.

She said she borrowed a trick from Novak Djokovic, who won the 2015 U.S. Open men’s singles final against Roger Federer in a really pro-Federer atmosphere by, he said, imagining that they were cheering “Novak” as an alternative of “Roger.”

“I mean, I used that,” Tomljanovic said. “And I also, just, really blocked it out as much as I could. It did get to me a number of times, internally. I didn’t take it personally because, I mean, I could be cheering for Serena, too, if I wasn’t playing her. But it surely was definitely difficult.”

Tomljanovic gathered herself impressively after Williams seized the second set in a tiebreaker after which broke Tomljanovic’s serve within the opening game of the third set. Tomljanovic also graciously and respectfully hit all the correct notes in her on-court interview, regardless that she had been reluctant to follow Williams to the microphone.

“I even have known Ajla since she was 12 years old, and I even have never been prouder of her,” said Chris Evert, the previous No. 1 who has been a mentor to Tomljanovic but watched the match from afar, in Aspen, Colo., where certainly one of her sons was to be married on Saturday.

Tomljanovic’s victory will definitely provide premium content for Netflix, which has been following her and a number of other other players closely all season because it movies the tennis version of “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” its behind-the-scenes automobile racing series.

But Tomljanovic, who swept the last six games of what is nearly certain to be Williams’s final match, can be an unseeded 29-year-old veteran who has never been ranked in the highest 30 on this planet and has yet to advance past the quarterfinals in a significant tournament. That she had the tools to face toe-to-toe with Williams and prevail is another hint that Williams’s time at the highest of the sport has truly passed.

What was also clear on Friday because the match prolonged well past two hours and right into a third set was that Williams’s stamina and speed were fading. That’s comprehensible together with her lack of match play in recent months and in light of all of the physical and emotional energy she was absorbing and expending with the general public roaring her on. She also had played an intense doubles match the night before in Ashe Stadium, losing in two close sets with Venus.

But comprehensible doesn’t negate the fact that she looked late to the ball, and sometimes nowhere near the ball, as Tomljanovic broke up baseline rallies by firing winners to interrupt her for a 5-1 lead.

It looked, only for a moment, as if Williams, probably the most ferocious competitors in tennis history, would have a sotto voce finish.

As a substitute, she dug in and dug deep, drawing strength from past revivals and again showing no fear of swinging for the lines with a Grand Slam match at stake.

Should we actually have been surprised?

Because the points and great escapes piled up, Pam Shriver, the ESPN analyst sitting courtside, turned to those of us in the identical row and said wide-eyed, “There ought to be a documentary nearly this game.”

Not a foul call, but perhaps higher to make it the ultimate act of a documentary about this week, when Williams shook off the rust for 3 final rounds and gave the crowds and all those that have followed her for nearly three many years, through triumphs and setbacks, an prolonged reminder of what made her great.

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