NEW YORK — “I’m so sorry,” Adjera Tomljanovic said in his post-match interview after beating Serena Williams on Friday.
A minute after Williams left the field at Arthur Ashe Stadium, she spoke in what may have been her last as a professional. Tomljanovic beat her in an epic three-hour match.
It was one of the biggest victories of her life, but there was no celebration.
“I love Serena as much as you do,” Tomlyanovic told the crowd, recalling how she adored her growing up. “It was a surreal moment for me.”
Williams saved five match points until the sixth to end her campaign. She has been building at the US Open after winning her opening two matches against Danka Kovinic and world No. 2 Annette Kontaveit. Against Tomljanovic she was the favourite – a first for the tournament. There was a growing sense that she could do incredible things and win the whole thing. The farewell tour is turning into the most incredible last dance that only Serena Williams can make.
But extraordinary sports fairy tales are rare. For each of these unicorns, there are more stories about dream narratives being ruined by reluctant protagonists.
“I felt like a villain,” Tomljanovic said later.
She’s not the first to feel this way, nor will she be the last. Some of the sport’s greatest figures have failed to finish their careers on a high note, leaving a lingering impression on those who stopped their heroes in the closing stages.
Take Larry Holmes, who stopped Muhammad Ali in October 1980. Ali had ended a year of retirement and started fighting with Holmes, but Ali was a shadow of his former self, and Holmes eventually won and Ali’s coach, Angelo Dundee, stopped the fight in the 10th round. Sherlock Holmes cried during the post-war interview. “When you’re fighting with a friend, it’s brother to me, and you don’t get happiness,” Holmes said. “I played a situation where I didn’t win.” Ali fought one more time, and he lost.
There are other types of great sports stories in which an old man manages to go back in time and catch the younger generation by surprise, only to fall short. During those four memorable days at the 2009 Open, the 59-year-old Tom Watson lost a one-shot lead on the final day, missed the Clarets jug before losing to Stuart Sink in the play-offs .
Afterwards, Zink was asked if he felt like he had ruined the ending of a Hollywood movie. “No, I don’t think so. Whether Tom is 59 or 29, I feel that way, you know, he’s a guy on the pitch and I have to play against everybody on the pitch and everybody on the pitch to stand out,” said Zink. “I don’t think there’s anything to take away. Some people might disagree with that, but it’s hard to convince me.”
He added: “I’m not ashamed. I’m not disappointed. I’m glad I won the game.”
And then there’s the pre-planned farewell, like Serena’s, where nostalgia and faith drive all who watch crazy, hoping to witness the final golden hour. At the 2017 London Athletics World Championships, Usain Bolt said goodbye to the sport, with the world on track for a gold medal in the 100m.
But it was Justin Gatlin who took the gold instead, with Bolt third.
As Gatling completed his victory lap, he was booed by the crowd. “Bolt came to me after the game and said I shouldn’t have been booed by the crowd, and he was happy that I had been graceful,” Gatling said. “It’s a surreal moment. He’s going to be a figure that will be widely missed, even by me.”
Six days later, Bolt’s hamstrings failed in the final straight of the men’s 4×100. This will be his final act on the track – the figure of the fallen hero, his body exuding, just adding to the legend.
Tomljanovic’s victory was met with silence at Arthur Ashe on Friday, followed by increasingly louder noises trying to wake Williams. The victory took Tomljanovic three hours and five minutes, but it was built on a lifetime of skill and mental strength. Every time she hits the net with her first serve, she cheers for the miss. At one point her frustration erupted when she told the referee that she was interrupted by the noise of the crowd and her anger was booed.
In response to the overwhelming majority of the 23,859 crowd cheering her opponent, she resorted to Novak Djokovic’s strategy. “When the crowd turned against him, he just pretended it was for him,” she said after her second-round win. “When they chanted, I don’t know, Rafa, Roger, whoever it was, he heard Novak, Novak. I kind of like the response.”
It worked for her. “I use that [tactic] “I also blocked it as much as I could,” Tomljanovic said after beating Williams. It did affect me internally a few times. I mean, I didn’t take it personally because, I mean, if I didn’t play her, I’d be cheering for Serena too. But it’s definitely not easy. There is no other way. “
She formed her own “little bubble” and then, after three fiery sets of tennis, watched Williams’ on-court interview and a million emotions flowed through her.
“[It was] Probably the most contradictory feeling I have after winning,” she said. “In competitions, I’m so desperate to win. But when it ended, it almost felt wrong. When she started talking about her family and everything, yes I was thrilled because I could have a strong bond with your family. I was intrigued when she said she wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for them. The whole moment after that was difficult to handle. “
The audience applauded after her speech—it felt like the first cheers she heard that night, except for the 15 or so people who were sitting in her box watching the game.
On Sunday, Tomljanovic will face Lyudmila Samsonova in the fourth round. It’s not going back to Ash, but to the next biggest showroom – Louis Armstrong. To get back to Ash, she has to keep winning.
Her biggest return at a Grand Slam to date has been two quarterfinal exits at Wimbledon. She overcame a huge obstacle to try to do better.
But no matter what happens here, she will always have the honor of being the player who knocked Williams out of her final U.S. Open. With this, she’ll be the answer to one of the most important trivia questions in sports.
“I mean, no one’s going to pronounce my name correctly,” she said. “That would be bad. But, I mean, I don’t think I’m going to be part of tennis history, so that’s cool. … I really want to play Serena before she retires.
“If I was a loser today, I would probably be very sad. I don’t want to say I’m sad, just a little conflicted.”