It was drama, then agony.
The tennis career of Serena Williams, the greatest player ever in her sport, if not the most dominant professional athlete ever, ended tonight after a laborious three sets at the U.S. Open inside Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, N.Y.
Serena Williams finally succumbed, 7-5, 6-7, 6-1, after a battle that lasted three hours with her rival Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia, in which neither player seemed to have the will to lose.
Williams started the evening by making it look like she’d make easy work of Tomljanovic, going up 3-1 in the first set before the Aussie made a comeback and ultimately took the first set. The second set was a back-and-forth for the ages, with Williams again taking an early advantage before Tomljanovic climbed back, forcing the set to a tiebreaker, which Williams ultimately won 7-4.
But in the third set, the accumulation of two decades at the top of the sports world looked to take its toll on Williams, as Tomljanovic looked fresher and jumped out to a 5-1 lead. But true to form and true to her culture, Williams wouldn’t go down easy. She forced six match points, each time reeling a nearly-triumphant opponent back from a chance to take the match to a deuce as the raucous crowd exploded in cheers each time their hero found a miracle at the end of her racquet.
Williams’ tennis legacy mirror how she played what’s likely her last match: a hero to millions who found magic and made miracles on clay and grass, changing the face of the sport and the way the game was played itself. Along with her sister, Venus, who was in attendance, Serena Williams dominated tennis and rewrote its record books since winning her first Grand Slam tournament—the U.S. Open—days shy of her 18th birthday in 1999.
Twenty-three years later, she exits the sport at age 40 after an epic match and a memorable three rounds in the same tournament, which this year looked more like a reunion for Black icons and influencers than the buttoned-up and often mostly white affairs that major tournaments had been when the Williams sisters entered the sport in the late 1990. Spike Lee, typically a courtside fixture at New York Knicks games, was at center court for the coin flip of Williams’ second-round match. Dionne Warwick had a viral moment by being misidentified by an ESPN commentator for Gladys Knight. Tiger Woods, whose dominance of golf in the late ‘90s and early 2000s paralleled Williams’ ascent to the top of the tennis world, attended and loudly cheered his contemporary on. Offset, Queen Latifah, Anthony Anderson, Saquon Barkley and Lala Anthony all attended.
Russell Wilson made his first public appearance since inking a $245 million mega-contract with the Denver Broncos, alongside his wife, the singer Ciara.
Williams announced her retirement on August 9, writing in a Vogue essay that she was “evolving away from tennis” to devote time to her family and her venture capital firm, Serena Ventures. If she never plays again, her career ends with 23 Grand Slam championships, one shy of the record held by Australian Margaret Court.
After the match ended, Williams—the runner up—was interviewed first at center court, Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” playing in the background.
“I tried but Ajla just played a little bit better,” she said. Through tears, she thanked her parents, sisters, husband and the fans who cheered her on throughout her career.
“These are happy tears. It’s been a fun ride. It’s been the most incredible ride and journey I’ve ever been on.”
But when asked if she’d ever play again, given the strength of her performance against players at least a decade younger and ranked higher, Williams didn’t completely foreclose on the possibility. “I played my way into this. I should’ve started earlier this year,” she said.
“I don’t think so, but I don’t know.”