Serena Williams, the icon, the legend, the GOAT, lost in the third round of the US Open, marking her final match as a professional tennis player.
Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic beat Williams on Friday night in a thrilling battle, 7-5, 6-7 (4-7), 6-1, at Arthur Ashe Stadium. The three-hour match saw a wild, long comeback that culminated in a heated tiebreak in the second set before Tomljanovic finally closed out the match in the third – ending what will go down as one of the best and most popular matches of the entire tournament.
“I’m really sorry, just because I love Serena as much as you do and what she did for me, because the sport of tennis is incredible,” Tomljanovic said. she said after her win. “I never thought I’d get the chance to play her in her final match when I remember watching her as a kid in all those finals. This is a surreal moment for me.”
Williams was up 4-0 in the second set, too, and looked poised to force a third. However, Tomljanovic, who won four straight games to close out the first set, managed to force a tiebreak. Williams nearly got there as well, but Williams escaped with a 7-4 victory to extend the match.
Although Williams jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the final set, she lost the next two quickly and looked exhausted after more than two and a half hours on court. Tomljanovic rolled from there, even with seemingly the entire court in front of her, to take the final set and advance to the fourth round, while also ending Williams’ career.
Williams was emotional as she left the court – she cried “happy tears, I guess” in her final interview – and thanked her parents and her sister, Venus.
“Thank you so much, you’re amazing today. I wish I could play a little bit better. Thanks dad, I know you’re watching. Thanks mom,” Williams said on the court. “Thank you to everyone here, who have been by my side for so many years, decades. God, literally decades. But it all started with my parents and they deserve everything, so I’m really grateful to them.
“Those are happy tears, I guess! I don’t know. And I wouldn’t be Serena if it wasn’t for Venus, so thank you Venus.”
Williams is more than just this loss
A loss like that isn’t the way Williams wanted to end her career, but she won’t be remembered for it. Her career is too incredible, too important to be defined by one moment.
Williams first picked up a tennis racket at age three (though she says she was 18 months), and in a way, her fate was sealed from there. As the younger sister of fellow tennis legend Venus Williams, she spent time watching Venus play and succeed and fail while she waited in the shadows, learning what she could from what she saw.
Aphrodite came to the fore first, but Serena followed close behind. She officially arrived in 1999, winning the US Open, and then in 2002-2003 accomplished a feat now called the Serena Slam: Holding all four Grand Slam titles simultaneously for two calendar years. She won the 2002 French Open, the 2002 Wimbledon title, the 2002 US Open and the 2003 Australian Open. In each of these finals, she had to defeat her own sister to win the trophy. Williams would go on to win the Serena Slam again in 2014-2015.
She never managed to achieve a calendar Slam (winning all four majors in the same year), but became the first female tennis player in history to achieve a career Golden Slam (winning all four majors and the Olympic gold medal) in both singles and doubles. in the double. Williams is so dominant in singles that her doubles career, playing alongside Venus, is often forgotten. As a doubles team, they remain unbeaten in Grand Slam finals, winning 14 and never losing a single one.
In total, Williams spent 319 weeks as the WTA No. 1 tennis player in the world. Only Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova have spent more time at the top than her. While she often chose to focus on the Grand Slams instead of playing extensively on the WTA Tour, she won 73 singles titles, which ranks her fifth all-time in women’s tennis history. She won 23 Grand Slam titles, the most in the Open Era and one behind Margaret Court for the all-time record.
Breaking boundaries has led to support and criticism
While Williams was good, she was more than that, making headlines and turning heads in a way that transcended tennis and athletics in general. She was bold and daring, disregarding the norms for female tennis players. She wore clothes no one had ever seen on a tennis court, bright colors, cats and tutus. She wore her hair however she wanted, in braids, beads, straight and natural. She showed off her body with pride, refusing to hide the muscles she worked so hard for. She became a fashion icon, appearing alone on the cover of Vogue, designing several clothing lines and becoming a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model.
At the same time, few athletes have inspired such passion from the public — both for and against her. She was criticized for her tennis hair and clothes. She was criticized for being too muscular and too strong when she played. He was criticized for bringing competition to tennis. Williams hasn’t been a perfect player and she’s not a perfect person, so she’s received some criticism — like when she was called out for being too selfish and combative after her extended on-court altercation with the chair umpire during the 2018 US Open women’s final against Naomi Osaka, whom she subsequently lost.
But even this example has a racist twist. After that fight, an Australian newspaper printed a racist sketch of Williams, using racial stereotypes to portray her as an overly muscular animal being with an ape-like face and huge lips, while Osaka was drawn as a blonde white woman. Some of Williams’ criticism was fair and deserved, but some of it, both inside and outside of tennis, stemmed from her being a black woman who dared to challenge the sport’s white female norms.
Williams’ legacy is immense
Williams has been so good for so long that in recent years, she’s been competing against players who started playing tennis because they saw her do it. They are the Serena Generation, they play their own way and their own style, but they carry a part of Williams with them every time they play.
That’s why her legacy will grow. The Serena Generation is not static, because her story in the sport will continue to influence young girls and women around the world, whether they play tennis or not. And the women inspired by Williams would inspire a generation of their own, carrying it into the future long after she stopped racing. Venus and Serena walked so players like Coco Gauff could run. And Gauff runs so others can fly in the future.
Williams has been dominant for so long, in an individual sport that is as much about mental preparation and performance as it is about physicality. The only real comparison you can make is Tiger Woods, who also played a solo sport. Both were wildly successful in a way that transcended sports. Both challenged white norms and the largely white history of their sports. Both managed to fall just short of a historic mark in their sports: Williams is one major away from equaling Margaret Court’s 24 Grand Slam titles, and Woods remains three majors behind Jack Nicklaus for the record of all ages.
But if the setback doesn’t define Woods’ legacy, it certainly doesn’t define Williams’. Whether you look at her career as a whole or on a micro level, she has done things that no one predicted or expected. For example, even after more than a decade of excellence, no one could have imagined that she would (or could) win the 2017 Australian Open while eight weeks pregnant. She then missed an entire year of racing after an emergency C-section caused her to develop a pulmonary embolism that kept her bedridden for six weeks. Not many expected him to come out of it with the same strength and drive he did, but he did anyway, returning in 2018 to reach the finals of four Grand Slams and the semi-finals of another two.
Now, having done (almost) everything he ever wanted to do in tennis, he’s moving on. To focus on her venture capital firm, grow her family and do whatever she wants. He has earned it.
There is no one like Serena Williams and there will never be anyone like her again. It didn’t just change the sport of tennis. changed the world.