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Serena Williams’s Magical Last Week in Tennis

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Serena Williams left the Lotte Latest York Palace hotel on Madison Avenue and folded herself into the back seat of a dark green Lincoln Navigator. She arrived on the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center about quarter-hour later. Traffic’s bearable on Saturday mornings.

Her five-person, one-dog entourage convened on Practice Court 1. With more weariness than joy in her face, and a little bit of a gimpy shuffle in her step, she set down her orange bag. It held a Ziploc bag crammed with clean socks and a pink skirt to wear after practice. She checked her phone, in a black case with an “SW” pop socket. Her black Nikes had a gold “SW,” too. She wore a marriage ring, the stone the scale of a meatball.

Sometime soon — perhaps a few days, perhaps two weeks — her tennis profession would end. But not yet. There was another tournament: the U.S. Open.

A trainer smeared sunscreen on her face, then helped her warm up with elastic bands and stretches. There was little small talk.

Would she miss mornings like this?

“Truthfully, I can’t wait to get up at some point and literally never must worry about acting on such a high level and competing,” she had told Meghan Markle — yeah, the Duchess of Sussex and a great friend — on a podcast days before the tournament. “I’ve actually never felt that.”

She began swatting balls to her hitting partner. Whatever morning and middle-age lethargy she had soon disappeared in an arsenal of sharp forehands and two-handed backhands.

She was nearly ready. Serena glowed in sweat.

Let’s conform to call her Serena, because only chair judges call her Williams. To fans on the U.S. Open, “Serena” was her last name and her first name was “C’mon.”

The story began last month, when Vogue magazine published an essay by which Serena said she was “evolving away from tennis” to grow her businesses and her family.

“I even have never liked the word retirement,” she wrote. “It doesn’t feel like a contemporary word to me.’”

Immediately, stories were written about her profession and legacy, almost as if she had died. In Latest York, plans for a correct send-off were jump-started. The U.S. Open made a plan: Turn Serena’s opening match right into a prime-time celebration. Fill Arthur Ashe Stadium with celebrities and a record crowd. Create videos narrated by Oprah Winfrey and Queen Latifah. Cue the tears.

But then Serena invited herself back to play one other night, and one other, and one other.

At almost 41, she whipped shots and chased balls as if birthed from a time capsule. Then along got here momentum, the elixir of the sports gods.

Was Serena surprised? Hardly.

“I’m just Serena,” she said, pretty much as good an evidence as any.

And that is Serena’s Latest York story, seven days and a profession within the making.

As Serena practiced the weekend before the celebration, probably the most experienced member of Serena’s on-court entourage was Chip, a Yorkshire terrier and Toto replica, jaunty with a bow tie around his neck.

But the remaining of the crew got here to Serena’s circle only in her twilight. It included her coach Eric Hechtman; a hitting partner Jarmere Jenkins; the trainers Kristy Stahr and Derick Pierson (who doubled as Chip’s handler); and a recent addition, Rennae Stubbs, a multiple Grand Slam winner in doubles who brings experience and levity.

As Serena warmed up within the cool of morning, there have been few witnesses. But a couple of feet behind Serena, hidden behind the blue gauze that covered the chain-link fence, a 36-year-old tournament volunteer named Jessica Wynne pantomimed Serena’s steps and swings. She danced to Serena’s on-court rhythm.

Wynne tried to commit Williams’s movements to muscle memory and he or she recorded them on her phone. She wanted to indicate the moves to her 6-year-old twins, a boy and girl, back home in Michigan, just learning to play tennis. She considers Serena the best athlete ever.

“Nobody has had more pressure on her,” Wynne said. “Nobody has grown with more grace. It doesn’t mean that she’s greater than an individual. She’s not. She’s not a superhero.”

Soon the gates to the tennis center opened to the general public. People ran — ran — to search out Serena, just like the early arrivals at Disneyland who sprint to be first on Space Mountain. They crowded into the bleachers and stuffed themselves behind the fence near Wynne. They nudged each other to rejoice their communal success in doing nothing greater than being somewhat near Serena Williams.

The fans were a full spectrum of ages and races. That’s Latest York. That’s Serena. There is perhaps no athlete, ever, as popular with such a patchwork of humanity.

“That is her! That is her!” a 37-year-old Latest Yorker named Randy Cline said in whispered excitement. He pogoed up and down.

He and his wife pressed their 4 children, ages 9 months to 12 years, near the fence.

“You don’t normally get this near greatness,” Cline said. “I’m just absorbing it. I hope my kids are absorbing it.”

The concrete-block corridor outside the players’ locker room is lined with framed photos of former champions. Serena resides in glossy color between Roger Federer, in a graceful follow-through, and her sister Venus Williams, smiling while holding the U.S. Open trophy.

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

  • Glorious Goodbye: Whilst Serena Williams faced profession point, she placed on a gutsy display of the ability 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 Nineties, their legacies have been tied to one another’s.

Serena is frozen in full grimace, teeth bared and white beads flying in her braided hair. The photo was from her first U.S. Open title, at 17. It marked her arrival, as a player and a presence.

A couple of feet away, the true 40-year-old Serena was laughing with Taylor Townsend, a Black player in her 20s.

How lots of today’s players, of tomorrow’s players, owe something — inspiration, belief, a less-rocky ride — to Serena Williams? There can be loads of tennis players if she never existed, but would they be these tennis players?

Ten of the highest 30 Americans in the newest women’s singles rankings are Black or biracial, none of them named Williams.

“Sometimes being a lady, a Black woman on the planet, you type of accept less,” Coco Gauff, the 18-year-old American, said. “I feel like Serena taught me that, from watching her, she never settled for less.”

It was the day before the tournament began. Townsend teased Serena for not returning text messages. Serena apologized and laughed, hard, something she does more often the farther she is from a camera lens.

Iga Swiatek, the world’s top-ranked player, a 21-year-old from Poland, spotted her. She was nervous. The 2 had never met, largely because Swiatek was intimidated by Serena.

“I desired to say, ‘Hi,’ a couple of times, nevertheless it’s tough because she at all times has so many individuals round her and I’m pretty shy,” Swiatek had said a few weeks earlier. “And once I take a look at her, I suddenly type of forget that I’m here because the world No. 1. I see Serena and it’s, ‘Wow, Serena.’ You understand?”

Possibilities were running out. Swiatek made her move.

“So I finally found the courage and this happened,” she wrote on Instagram, with a photograph of Swiatek and Serena with their arms around one another. “Congratulations in your amazing journey and legendary profession.”

The Williams sisters were outsiders, in obvious ways — Black girls from the general public courts of Compton, crashing a cotillion of a sport. Their tennis success was crammed with the “buts” of detractors — however the braids, but the garments, however the muscles, however the outbursts.

They were human Rorschach tests. The world projected and exposed its own biases onto Venus, then Serena. Venus knocked down doors; Serena barged through. She was the larger, brasher and ultimately more successful one on the court.

“I feel people could feel my confidence, because I used to be at all times told, ‘You look great. Be Black and be proud,’” she told Time magazine in a canopy story before the tournament.

She also helped usher in a recent era of athlete — the icon, the mogul, the brand. Like top athletes of this age, she maintains a curated persona, keeping a little bit of glossy distance from those that cheer her. It’s telling, in fact, that her retirement/evolution was announced in her own words in a canopy story for Vogue.

Before the tournament, Serena rang the opening bell of the Latest York Stock Exchange, alongside her business partner Alison Rapaport Stillman, representing Serena Ventures, a enterprise capital firm focused on minority businesses. She wore a dress that she later sold at her clothing company, S by Serena, for $109. Later she promoted her first children’s book, “The Adventures of Qai Qai.”

It was almost as if she was in Latest York for the subsequent phase, not the last phase.

After which she took the court.

Arthur Ashe Stadium buzzed like a hive. It was the last Monday night of August, perhaps the last singles match for Serena. Dusk settled, bringing the anticipatory air of a prize fight and a record-setting U.S. Open crowd of 29,402.

There have been celebrities in every single place: Mike Tyson. Hugh Jackman. Queen Latifah. Former President Bill Clinton. Spike Lee, predictably. Dr. Ruth, less so.

But a very powerful witness, not less than to Serena, was within the players’ box within the northeast corner. Her daughter, Olympia, three days shy of her fifth birthday, wore a miniature version of the black dress that her mother wore on the court.

A poignant ode to Olympia’s mother dangled in her hair. It was braided and held strings of white beads. They were a symbolic bookend to Serena’s profession.

“It was either her wear beads or me,” Serena said. “I desired to do it, but I just didn’t have the time.”

Danka Kovinic, a 27-year-old tour veteran from Montenegro, ranked eightieth on the planet, had the fortune, good or bad, of drawing Serena in the primary round. She was introduced first, to polite applause, then sat in her courtside chair and waited.

And waited.

First got here a video tribute for Serena that brought fans to their feet. Then got here Serena, racket bag over her shoulder, water bottle in her hand, buds in her ears that muffled the roar of the gang.

She wore a cape-like jacket and black Nike shoes with diamond-encrusted swooshes. The laces on her right shoe had a decorative tag that said “Mama.” The left shoe said “Queen.”

Once play began, Serena got the primary big ooh-aah ovation when she lunged to scoop a Kovinic drop shot, deftly volleyed at the online, after which dropped back, with the movement of a dancer, to smack a sidearm winner.

The play was at turns stirring and shaky, never uninspired. There was no sense that Serena was in a rush or desired to be anywhere else.

It was sometimes quiet enough to listen to the 7 train rattle nearby. It was sometimes so loud “I could feel it in my chest,” Serena said.

Kovinic didn’t shrink from the moment. But the entire thing — Serena, the atmosphere — wore her down.

When Serena won match point, she ran in place, overjoyed and relieved. Kovinic slipped out of sight. Serena was directed to remain. A post-match celebration had been planned, win or lose, without her knowledge.

Olympia got here to the court, within the arms of her father, Alexis Ohanian. There was Oracene Price, the mother of Venus and Serena, and Isha, considered one of their sisters.

Billie Jean King, a spry 78, told of meeting Venus and Serena at a camp in Long Beach, Calif., after they were 7 and 6. She remembered fawning over Serena’s service motion that day.

“Her serve is by far probably the most beautiful serve within the history of our sport,” King said.

There was a video narrated by Oprah Winfrey. Then Serena took the microphone, moved by the moment.

“Sometimes I feel it’s harder to walk away than not,” she said.

On Wednesday, the day before her fifth birthday, Olympia was within the players’ lounge on her father’s lap.

“Tickle me, tickle me, tickle me!” she begged, and when he did, she squealed. She wore a sweatshirt from her mother’s collection that read “GOAT.” Nearby, Oracene wore one, too.

Out the windows to the west, on the practice courts, Serena warmed up in the ultimate strips of sunlight. Fans crowded around, however the mood was muted compared with Monday — less anxious, less celebratory. On the predominant doors to Ashe Stadium, there was no blue carpet. The phalanx of paparazzi was gone.

Serena’s rating was deep within the lots of when she made the “evolution” announcement. Expectations in Latest York were muted. The U.S. Open can be a celebration, and possibly a brief one.

But Serena had a secret.

Despite not playing for many of a yr and losing in the primary round at Wimbledon and early in two August tournaments, she had privately practiced well all summer.

And she or he had experience. A 41-0 profession record in the primary two rounds of the U.S. Open. A house-court advantage unlike some other. And confidence. At all times confidence.

Anett Kontaveit, Serena’s second-round opponent, felt the brunt of all that on Wednesday night.

The match sizzled from the beginning. Serena won the primary set in a tiebreaker. Kontaveit broke her serve to begin the second set, and stayed stout to send it to a 3rd.

The chair umpire routinely needed to hush fans who shouted, “I like you, Serena!” between points or murmured in excitement when Kontaveit missed a primary serve. The foundations of decorum stretched, all in Serena’s direction.

Tiger Woods, his cap spun backward, cheered her on. Venus was two seats away. Behind them was Anna Wintour, the Vogue editor, along with her bob and saucer-sized sunglasses.

Serena seized control and finished off a victory, 7-6 (4), 2-6, 6-2. Along the best way, the celebratory mood shifted into an expectant one.

The bracket showed that she wouldn’t play one other seeded opponent before the quarterfinals, if she advanced that far.

Serena described the “big red ‘X’ on my back” since first winning the Open. She spent parts of 4 many years attempting to uphold a regular that she created. No more.

“I don’t have anything to prove, I don’t have anything to win,” she said on court after the match. “And I even have absolutely nothing to lose.”

It was Serena’s idea to play doubles along with her sister again. If this truly was her last spin in tennis, it felt right to do it alongside her sister.

Possibly there was magic left within the partnership. They were 14-time Grand Slam champions, never losing a final. Now they were a wild-card entry, added just before the tournament, infusing it with one other titillating dose of Williams.

Their opening match, against Lucie Hradecka and Linda Noskova of the Czech Republic, who were playing together for the primary time, was placed in prime time at Ashe Stadium, in front of one other capability crowd.

Serena walked out first, in a black skirt and black T-shirt. Venus, 42, as statuesque as ever, wore a green and white outfit and a white visor. After each point, they slapped hands or fist-bumped, after which whispered strategy to one another while covering their mouths — afraid of doubles-hacking lip readers.

At the online, Serena showed off her fast reflexes. Venus loped along the baseline chasing shots.

But they lost a first-set tiebreaker, then fell behind quickly within the second set. Mistakes piled up. The gang deadened. The sisters grinded back to 4-all, but lost the match on Serena’s serve.

Venus and Serena embraced. In a moment, they were gone to an appreciative ovation — Venus with a fast wave, Serena without. And shortly after that, they were driven back to Manhattan, individually.

That is where things began to show. And that is where you’ll hear a solution to a Serena-specific trivia query, and you will have to double-check the spelling: Ajla Tomljanovic.

“Nobody’s going to pronounce my name right,” she said later. “That’s going to suck.”

For the third match in a row, Serena was pitted against a veteran opponent in her late 20s whom she had never played before. They were character actors plucked into starring roles in Serena’s big-budget production.

Dusk got here, the stadium filled and Serena got here out in her caped robe, like a boxer. The scoreboards flashed, GREATEST OF ALL TIME, and only should you like underdogs did you want how this ended.

The match was great theater, a passion play lasting greater than three hours. Tomljanovic was as regular as a ball machine, set on high.

She has been playing Grand Slams for 10 seasons and has never been ranked higher than No. 38. Playing in a floral dress and a red visor, she found that she could match Serena from the baseline, stroke for stroke.

She received unexpected help from an unlikely source — Serena’s serve. Tomljanovic broke Serena thrice while winning the primary set. The gang whipsawed from frenzy to disappointment, sometimes on the identical long point.

Serena nearly gave the second set away after going up, 5-2, but rescued it in a tiebreaker. But something was gone. Soon it could be Serena.

The important thing number from the match was six. It was fitting, since that’s how again and again Serena has won the U.S. Open.

Serena lost the last six games of the match. On the best way out, she fought and fought, losing on her sixth match point. She ran and chased until she was out of breath. She backhanded and forehanded and overhanded and tried to suit a life’s value of highlights into her final encore.

It was 10:22 p.m. when she fired a forehand return, hammered one other forehand, after which — in her final shot, moving forward just contained in the baseline — hit another, this time into the online.

The gang groaned, then stood and cheered. The ball rolled past Serena as she reached to shake Tomljanovic’s hand. Serena moved toward her bag, instinctively, then backed onto the court to wave in every direction. Tomljanovic applauded, too.

“When it ended, it almost didn’t feel right,” she said.

Serena was pulled into an on-court interview with Mary Joe Fernandez. That’s where she thanked her aging father, Richard Williams, who has not traveled in years. “Thanks, Daddy. I do know you’re watching,” she said.

Serena looked to the players’ box and thanked her mom, and the last vestiges of her trademark on-court toughness melted away. She was no superhero. She was just an individual.

“Oh, my God,” she said. “These are completely happy tears, I suppose. I don’t know.”

After which she shouted out Venus.

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

Then she thanked the fans, all of the ones who told her to “go” or to “c’mon” or who just lived their lives quietly inspired by this girl from Compton.

“You bought me here,” she said.

Here didn’t last long. Soon she was gone to there, wherever there may be, out of the lights and into whatever comes next.

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