As Serena Williams takes to the court at the U.S. Open this week, the question is how the greatest player in modern tennis will deal with the pressure of what she said could be her final major.
She looked rusty and slow all summer, but with four days and two prime-time matches, it looked like the 40-year-old might have a magical storybook for the 24th Grand Slam title.
That dream ended in a heartbreaking three-set loss to Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic on Friday night. By the end, the Arthur Ashe Stadium was packed with nearly 24,000 fans, cheering for her every point as she battled opponents 11 years her junior.
“It was the most incredible ride and ride I’ve ever had in my life,” Williams said on the field after the game, wiping away tears.
This 7-5, 6-7(4), 6-1 loss likely marked the end of a 27-year career that forever changed the world for women — especially black women — in sports views and understandings. Highlights will show Williams kicking and screaming, saving five match points and blasting to the end, where every hit counts when the game passes the three-hour mark.
“I’m not giving up,” Williams said. “Absolutely didn’t give up tonight.”
Williams has been New York’s hottest ticket this week, and it continues on Friday’s game, which was witnessed by some of the biggest names in sports and pop culture. For a long time, Williams delivered what they were looking for — the strength and ferocity, the precision and passion for the game that have characterized her quarter-century career.
On another night, in another season a few years ago, that might have been enough. But on this evening, weeks before her 41st birthday, Williams couldn’t maintain the rarity that has earned her so many victories. She served both sets and took four set points in the second set, only to allow Tomljanovic, who has never played on this court in the sport’s biggest stadium, to move from 5 in the first and second sets. -3 to climb out of the hole. She rivaled Williams in strength, surpassed her in steel willpower and accuracy, and faced a crowd entirely in Williams’ favor.
“I just thought she was going to beat me,” Tomljanovic said. “She’s the greatest ever, period.”
Williams’ loss came in the same match she won her first Grand Slam title at age 17 in 1999. Fans came to Ashe this week to say goodbye, but it was clear with every match that no one wanted to see Williams go, not tennis, as she won six tournaments. Just 24 hours before Friday’s game, Williams lost a doubles match against sister Venus Williams. Serena Williams struggled to catch her breath and keep up with the game as Friday’s game entered the third set.
Her performance this week, though, might make people wonder if she’s really ready to quit. With three matches and eight tennis matches over five days, few will soon forget, Williams proved she can still excel on the tennis court. However, she said she wanted to have a second child but couldn’t do so while traveling the world and racing.
She could always choose to return to tennis. But in an article for Vogue last month, Williams wrote that she was “moving away from tennis” — effectively announcing her plans to retire. In an interview with reporters after the Open, she didn’t change her plans.
Williams has played very little since suffering a hamstring injury at Wimbledon in 2021. She lost in the first round at Wimbledon in June, and a surprise performance at the U.S. Open seemed unlikely after announcing in August that she would play her final few matches. Knee tendinitis kept her from moving smoothly during the three games between Toronto and Cincinnati. Williams has struggled, though, focusing on improving her lateral movement and trying to regain her feel and timing on the ball, which has allowed her to play with unparalleled ferocity over a 40-year career.
Williams had a good chance of the first set after breaking Tomljanovic for a 5-3 lead. But she has failed to shut it down, and the emergence of a shortage appears to be disturbing her. She made a series of mistakes and when Tomljanovic took her chance, she hit the ball into the net and ended the game with a forehand cross from Williams barely moving.
In her first eight matches, 23-time Grand Slam champion Williams has repeatedly held the influential Australian back on so many points, sending her over the line and riding the crowd’s energy, which is an amazing feat. ending. to gain an early advantage.
The first half-hour looked destined to follow the pattern of the previous two games, with Williams improving with each set. But two errors on one of her signature shots — her forehand volley swing — and a serve that became unreliable and wobbly allowed her to score. After 49 minutes, she was in a hole.
Few players have reacted to deficits like Williams. When she’s healthy and in good shape, Williams sees losing a set almost as an insult, an attack on an aura of invincibility that she’ll do whatever it takes to keep it.
That’s exactly what she did Friday night. Her grunts got louder, her serve got harder and more precise. She volleyed one end on the pavement and stabbed and thumped the others. She surged to a 4-0 lead, then stumbled briefly, but recovered in time to even get to the brink of a draw. She held four sets at 5-2 and served again at 5-3, but failed to hit when she needed it most. Yet, somehow, Williams came alive in the tiebreaker, pushing into the court and layering her shot so close to the free-throw line, and returning with a tough backhand from Tomljanovic Its locked, and the Australians can’t fight back.
The audience in New York wasn’t always in her corner, especially during some of her ugly clashes with officials at this tournament, and now every ounce of their noise choked her, leaving Tomley Janovic’s game has become so difficult as it can be.
“So much support, so much love,” Williams said later. “The whole crowd really wanted to push me over the line. I’m so grateful and grateful for that.”
They entered the third set. Williams took the lead again, breaking Tomjanovic’s serve in the first game, but then squandered her advantage as her 40-year-old gas tank gradually emptied.
Tomljanovic finished six straight games. In the final game, Williams ripped open a ferocious forehand winner and let out a suffocating scream that sent the stadium into a frenzy again. Once again, Tomlyanovic let the noise fall on her and got to work on the task at hand. She needed six match points to allow Williams to make the final mistake before netting the final shot.
Williams tearfully told the crowd that her tennis career was the journey of a lifetime.
“It all started with my parents, they deserved everything. I really appreciate them,” she said. “These are happy tears.”
She nodded to her sister: “I wouldn’t be Serena without Venus,” she said.
She has said she plans to focus on growing her family and working with her venture capital firm. But with her three rounds of tennis reminiscent of so many Williams moments of yesteryear, it was hard for even her to say before Friday night that tennis was gone forever. Then she almost did.
“Obviously I’m still capable,” she said. “It takes so much more than that. I’m ready, like a mom, to explore a different version of Serena.”