If the legacy of Serena Williams was in how she changed the game, both on and off the tennis court, she left with quite the gift. A playing career that spanned 25 years, 23 grand slam singles titles, and an unprecedented era of dominance has now, we expect, been brought to an end. Williams announced she would be “evolving” away from tennis ahead of the US Open and with her tournament now over after a three-set defeat to Ajla Tomljanovic, that process moves forward now. “It’s been a fun ride,” she said, in the clearest suggestion that this would be it.
Fittingly, an extraordinary career concluded with the most memorable of goodbyes. Across three nights in New York, as Williams took to her primetime slot on Arthur Ashe, what can often be a vast, empty bowl of an arena was enchanted, taking on a glittering, ethereal feel. It began in the opening round, the rawest of the nights as the sense of finality hung in the air, but was transformed as Williams emerged - sparkling and powerful in equal measure.
All of this may have been predicted for a champion with the aura of Williams, but what took her goodbye to within the realms of impossibility was the levels she was able to produce, at 40 years old and barely a win in the previous 12 months to stand on. It was special just to see it again. The flying, driving volleys. The efficiency of the serve, and how it could remain this powerful. Her movement around the court, the touch and feel at the net and from the baseline, forehands pounded and backhand winners flicked down the line.
Above all, though, the passion and fight to battle on, and produce these moments when her status as the greatest of all time was already enshrined. New York rose in response, every point greeted with the guttural, desperate roar that is saved for when it could be the last. It was an atmosphere that may not be matched again.
There was relief, initially, when Williams came through rust and nerves to defeat Danka Kovinic in the opening round, ensuring she made it to the planned celebrations that Monday night with a win.
The tributes and montages, handled well by the US Open, also allowed her focus to return to tennis, while her progress to the second round and a meeting with the world No 2 Anett Kontaveit provided her with a sense of freedom that she had perhaps not felt since her first grand slam triumph in 1999. “It’s like the first time I don’t have an X on my back,” Williams said, before she went out and attacked Kontaveit relentlessly, in absorbing, breathless rallies. Kontaveit played superbly but Williams raised it on a raucous, frenzied night, summoning every ounce of a champion’s strength.
It was vintage while in the stands, those watching told a different story of her wider cultural and societal significance. Tiger Woods, whose impact on golf and reverence as a Black athlete breaking through racial barriers to dominate his sport is mirrored by that of Serena and her sister Venus. Her daughter Alexis Olympia, who wore white beads in her hair of her mother’s 1999 win and whose presence courtside was reflective of the new generation who could watch Wiliams reach this form.
These were sensational nights, but for those on the other side of the net taking on both Williams and the crowd presented the hardest of tasks. Her opponents found their winners met with silence, their errors cheered. Kovinic blinked, Kontaveit found it difficult, and it needed a character with the gutsy, gritty game of the Australian Tomljanovic to not only block it out but be inspired by it.
It was her 7-5 6-7 6-1 victory that may be remembered as the last match of Williams’ career, but Tomljanovic’s own performance will be remembered too as one of the great displays against the crowd. It inspired the best of Williams as well, after blasting ahead in the second set and then taking the tie-break to force the decider in an electric moment of theatre. Even as Tomljanovic resisted a final stand from Williams that saw her save match points, it was easy to tempt yourself with the question of what could still be possible, given a few more weeks of training and match practice.
The reality, though, is she no longer has that time to spare. Her venture capital firm, Serena Ventures, now takes up a considerable amount of her time and energy. She also wants to grow her family, which given she turns 41 this month and the complications that surrounded the birth of Alexis Olympia in 2017 has to be treated as a priority. “Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity,” she joked in her first-person essay for Vogue last month, even if between the lines it was a comment that she too could have played at the highest level until the age of 45 if she wasn’t a woman.
It was also in her essay for Vogue that announced her decision to evolve away from tennis. “I’m not looking for some ceremonial, final on-court moment,” Williams wrote at the time. “I’m terrible at goodbyes, the world’s worst. But please know that I am more grateful for you than I can ever express in words.”
There could only be gratitude from us, though, for a goodbye that remained iconic, for the career that served as an inspiration to so many, and for a week that reminded us all of how special it had all been.