After 27 years of battle and fury, after a career crowded with stratospheric triumphs and tumultuous descents, the time had come. An icon stepped down. At 10:23 PM, after a riveting 3:04 battle with Australian Ajla Tomljanovic, in which Serena Williams saved five match points, the very extraordinary 40-year-old mother hit a very ordinary forehand into the net. Serena fell 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-1 and soon tears flowed. We saw her tender, vulnerable side as she wept and said it’s been a “a fun journey…the most incredible journey.” She thanked “everyone who’s ever said, ‘Go Serena!’” and saluted Venus, her family, and her daddy.
It was the granddaddy of all Russian tennis fans, Leo Tolstoy, who once said, “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” Over the years, Serena, who played her first tourney in 1995, has morphed into a mythic figure. Tumult, ‘tude and controversy have only added to her legend. To millions, she’s bigger than life, a warrior queen and aspirational beacon who has long lit a path. To others she’s a provocative lightning rod who can’t skirt controversy. The Compton kid aided schools in dusty African villages and stole the show at a crusty English castle.
She’s beloved in the grittiest of ‘hoods and valued in the loftiest of corporate boardrooms. She’s drawn raves on the red carpets of Hollywood and dominated on the green grass carpets of Wimbledon. Recently Serena was on the cover of Vogue. Long ago she changed the definition of vogue.
Serena may be from the same mold as Rafa and Jimmy Connors. Her ferocity and will astound. She excelled over four eras of rivals, from Monica Seles, Steffi Graf and Martina Hingis to today’s stars. Only three rivals have winning records against her – Naomi Osaka, Aranxta Sanchez-Vicario and time.
And tonight, time did what it always does – it won. It reminded us again, “You may be an icon, you may have changed the landscape, and, goodness, you may even be Serena – but even you must step aside.”
Long ago, Williams recalibrated a white sport and transformed a core reality of tennis. She showed us, said writer Howard Bryant, “that you now have the ability to step into yourself. Before, there was a feeling that you had to conform…[Now] it’s about uplift and allowing your talent to put you in places you want to be…to have a seat at the table.”
Serena has been nothing if not bold – beads, braids, body suits, and broad shoulders. In-your-face petulance was not a problem. Merry twirls, don’t-mess-with-me growls and 73 shiny trophies – it’s good to be Serena. Who hates losing more? Who prances in the spotlight with such boundless delight?
As Roger Federer’s career began to soar, Sue Mott contended, “It cannot be long before our dictionary writers are asked to absorb the verb ‘to Federer’ meaning ‘to demolish with gasp-inducing precision.’” But there’s really no verb for Serena.
And tonight was a mirror of her career: fabulous runs, significant shortfalls. She broke out to a 5-3 first-set lead after winning eight points in a row and was just two points from collecting the first set. But the calm, game, swift Tomljanovic took advantage of Serena’s modest serving to win four games in a row and prevailed in the first set 7-5. But soon in the second set we saw glimpses of Serena at her peak: lights-out tennis, stepping up her aggression, charging the net, playing as if it were her last match.
The most fearsome lioness in tennis was on the prowl. She raced to a 4-0 second-set lead. But then again her level dipped – we saw hints of fatigue. Tomljanovic stepped in. Her anticipation was uncanny. How could she stay so composed? The 29-year-old, who is No. 46, won five of the next six games, including an epic 24-point game, to force a tiebreak. The action was riveting. The crowd’s roar was deafening. Serena simply cannot avoid drama. “She’s giving us something we will never forget,” noted Pat McEnroe. In the tiebreak Serena served mightily, hit ferocious forehands to the lines and prevailed 7-4 to force a third set.
But finally time said, “Enough.” Serena’s footwork faltered, her explosiveness diminished, her defense was porous, she would hit 51 unforced errors. Spike Lee looked glum. Gayle King stopped howling. Serena was down 5-1. The curtain was falling.
But Serena didn’t go down without a ferocious fight. Her sublime play to save five match points was a glorious last hurrah, an inspired protest of her fate that will never be forgotten. But all things must pass. A final forehand caught the net. Soon Serena was telling the media that what gave her the most pride at this year’s Open was that, “I didn’t smash any rackets…I had a good attitude (even if I didn’t want to).”
She added that the proudest moment of her career was surviving her pulmonary embolism in 2015. “That is definitely the one that I’m taking with me because I almost died.” She said that the whole crowd today “was really wanting to push me past the line…I think honestly what I’ll remember most is that my level was coming back….It’s great to be somehow improving. I don’t know how, at my age.”
So, she was asked, is there any wiggle room in her retirement plans? Her reply was intriguing. “I don’t know. I’m not thinking about that. I always did love Australia…Clearly I’m still capable…[But] I’m ready to be a mom, explore a different version of Serena…I’m still super young, so I want to have a little bit of a life while I’m still walking…I have such a bright future…I’m definitely probably going to be karaoke-ing tomorrow.”
She was asked what she wants to be remembered for. She replied, “Like the fight..I feel like I really brought something…to tennis. The different looks, the fist pumps, the just crazy intensity…Passion is a really good word…I just honestly am so grateful that I had this moment and that I’m Serena.”
And so are we.