Serena Williams’ trailblazing tennis career ended with one last blast of fire on a cool Friday night at the U.S. Open, the setting of her first major triumph in 1999.
Williams, who strongly indicated she’s ready to move away from competition to spend more time with her family and business ventures, fought back several times against Australian Ajla Tomljanovic and won a dramatic tiebreak to take the second set, but Tomljanovic prevailed, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-1. That sent Williams off to continue her evolution, a term she prefers to retirement.
Williams, who did well to shake off the rust of a year’s absence because of injury and reach the third round of the tournament she had won six times while capturing 23 Grand Slam singles titles, appeared to be on the verge of tears when Tomljanovic served for the match at 5-1. Williams saved five match points, but that merely postponed the inevitable.
When it was over, she waved to the crowd, hand over her heart, turning to reach everyone in the vast stadium. “These are happy tears, I guess,” she said during an on-court interview, then thanked her family, including older sister and doubles partner Venus.
“I tried, but Ajla just played a little bit better. Thank you, Daddy. I know you’re watching. Thanks, Mom. It all started with my parents. I wouldn’t be Serena without Venus, so thank you, Venus. She’s the only reason Serena Williams ever existed.”
Tomljanovic said she went in thinking Williams would beat her. “I’m feeling really sorry because I love Serena as much as you guys,” she told the crowd. “This is a surreal moment for me.
“She’s the greatest of all time, period.”
Williams played exceptionally well in spurts, and the sold-out crowd of more than 23,000 at Arthur Ashe Stadium applauded, cheered and chanted her name throughout the match. Their frenzy intensified when she built leads of 4-0 and 5-2 in the second set, but anxiety began to filter into their voices when Williams let four set points slip away in the eighth game of the second set.
Williams, grunting with exertion, took a 4-1 lead in the tiebreak, but Tomljanovic, who is ranked 46th in the world, fought back to make it close before Williams finished it out.
They traded service breaks in the first two games of the third set, and Tomljanovic went up 3-1 when she converted her fourth break point opportunity of that game. Guests in Williams’ box could be heard yelling, “Come on, Mama!” and other encouragement. Her mother, Oracene, husband Alexis Ohanian, coaches Rennae Stubbs and Eric Hechtman and sister Venus were among the group, along with friends Russell Wilson and Ciara.
Tomljanovic kept her poise as Williams kept missing shots; she committed 51 unforced errors to 30 by Tomljanovic. “She embodies that no dream is too big,” Tomljanovic said.
Asked by interviewer Mary Joe Fernandez whether she might reconsider her plans to step away, Williams was coy. “I don’t think so, but you never know. I don’t know,” she said.
That leaves some wiggle room, but it’s more likely that she will continue her evolution, leaving tennis the better for her presence.