Serena Williams Willed Her Way to a Glorious Goodbye

This is Match Point, which Serena Williams has faced many times before. It’s career point, and it’s amazing new territory for one of the greatest athletes of any era.

But unlike anyone else on this US Open night, Williams remained true to herself and her competitive spirit on Friday, and the end of her 27-year career as a professional tennis player suddenly became very real.

Yep, Ajla Tomljanovic was about to serve in the fourth round to lead 5-1 in the third set at 40-30. But Williams was clearly fed up after nearly three hours of corner kicks, and he wasn’t ready for what seemed inevitable.

She saved a match point with a swinging backhand volley. She saved a second with a confident forehand approach that Tomljanovic could not handle. She saved a third with a clean forehand return winner, and fans at the sold-out Arthur Ashe Stadium shouted: “Not yet! Not yet!”

“I’ve been depressed before,” Williams said later. “I don’t think I’ve ever given up in my career. In games, I’m not going to give up. Definitely not giving up tonight.”

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

In her farewell tournament at age 40, a record 24th Grand Slam singles title is always a long way off. Given all the competition and miles on her legs and all the rust she’s been racing in recent weeks, there’s no guarantee of a last inspirational dance either.

But she saved it in New York. She summoned it with all her pride, strength and absolute will. She found familiar gear in the second set of her first-round win over Danka Kovinic. She beat No. 2 seed Anett Kontaveit in the next round before taking on Tomljanovic, a tall and elegant bottom laner representing Australia, but Lives in Florida, born and raised in Croatia.

Unless her more famous opponent changes her mind, Tomljanovic will answer the trivia question “Who was the last player to face Serena Williams in an official match?”

But, while Williams couldn’t hold back her sixth career score with a forehand into the net, she did hit a more fitting final at Flushing Meadows than she chose to forego a final comeback.

At last year’s Wimbledon, she retired with a leg injury before the first set of her first-round match, crying as she stumbled across the grass on her often-winning Centre Court.

She was 39 at the time, and it took almost a year to get back on the field. But, thanks to a different reason Friday night in a postgame interview and again in her press conference, it’s clear she’s learned what she’s looking for by returning to the game.

She gave herself a proper grand stage to thank her fans and her family, including her parents Richard Williams and Ora Sene Price, and her big sister Venus Williams , she watched from the players box, just as Serena Williams did when she won her family’s first Grand Slam singles title at the 1999 U.S. Open. They went on to win 29, with Williams finishing with a 23 and Venus, who hasn’t yet retired, but almost certainly finished with the 7 she now has.

“I wouldn’t be Serena without Venus, so thank you, Venus,” Serena said. “She’s the only reason Serena Williams exists.”

While Williams himself was struggling to use the word “retirement” on Friday, the WTA Tour isn’t celebrating Williams’ great career because of it. Williams also didn’t give herself much wiggle room when asked how she could get her back for more.

“I didn’t think about it; I’ve always liked Australia, though,” she laughed, referring to the next major on the calendar: the Australian Open in January.

But it sounds more fun than serious, and she’s quick to reflect, talking about motherhood and life away from the game, which she’s experienced in detail during the coronavirus pandemic and in recent years away from tennis.

“It’s a lot of work to get here,” she said of the U.S. Open. “Obviously, I’m still capable. It takes a lot more than that. I’m ready to, like, be a mom and explore a different version of Serena. Technically, I’m still very young in this world , so I want to have a little life while I’m still walking.”

It was Williams’ call of course (of course!), but it seemed like the right call and the right time. While her level has often been surprisingly high this week, and she’s right, the last time she lost so early in a singles match at the U.S. Open was in 1998 when she played her first Open singles event.

Tomljanovic took pride in himself on Friday, effectively countering Williams’ signature power and handling a partisan and sometimes unsportsmanlike crowd with great composure and dignity. Fans cheered Tomljanovic’s loss and blunder, with some chanting “Serena!” as the game entered the closing stages of her service campaign.

She said she borrowed a trick from Novak Djokovic, who won the 2015 US Open men’s singles final against Roger Federer in a very pro-Federer atmosphere, he said, imagine them Cheers “Novak” instead of “Roger”.

“I mean, I used that,” Tomljanovic said. “And I also, just, blocked it out as much as I could. It did affect me internally a few times. I didn’t take it personally because, I mean, if I didn’t play her, I’d be there for Serena too. Cheers. But it’s definitely not easy.”

Tomljanovic was impressive after Williams took the second set in the tiebreaker and then broke Tomljanovic’s serve in the opening game of the third set. Tomljanovic also politely and respectfully hit all the right notes in her on-court interview, though she has been reluctant to follow Williams into the microphone.

“I’ve known Ajla since she was 12 and I’ve never been proud of her,” said former No. 1 Chris Evert, a former Tomljanovic , but watched the game from a distance in Aspen, Colorado. , one of her sons will be married on Saturday.

Tomljanovic’s win is sure to provide premium content for Netflix, and the company has been keeping a close eye on her and several other players all season as it’s filming the tennis version of its behind-the-scenes racing series “Formula 1: Left 4 Dead.”

But Tomljanovic, who swept the last six games in what was almost certainly Williams’ final game, is also an unseeded 29-year-old veteran who has never finished in the top 30 in the world, and has never been in the top 30. Can advance to the quarterfinals. in a major tournament. She has the tools to go head to head with Williams and win, again suggesting that Williams’ prime in the game is truly over.

It was also clear on Friday that Williams’ stamina and speed were fading as the match lasted two hours into the third set. That’s understandable given her lack of match play in recent months and considering all the physical and emotional energy she’s absorbing and consuming under the public rant against her. She had also played an intense doubles match at Ashe Stadium the night before, losing in two sets against Venus.

But understandably doesn’t negate the reality of her watching the ball late, and often far from the ball, as Tomljanovic smashed the bottom-line rally by firing a shot that broke her 5-1 lead.

For a split second, Williams, one of the fiercest rivals in tennis history, seemed to finish the game in a whisper.

Instead, she digs deep and digs deep, drawing strength from a revival of the past, once again showing she’s not afraid to wobble in the majors.

Should we really be surprised?

As the points and battle royale piled up, courtside ESPN analyst Pam Shriver turned to those of us in the same row, wide-eyed and said, “There should be a documentary about this game.”

Nice call, but perhaps best seen as the final scene of this week’s documentary, when Williams shrugs off the rust in the final three rounds and frustrates viewers and all who have followed her for nearly three years with victories and triumphs, A further reminder of what makes her great.

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