Locked at 4-4 in the second set tiebreaker against Ajla Tomljanovic, Serena Williams blasted an ace and a forehand down-the-line winner to walk away with the set.
If this was going to be it, it was simply Serena: an exhibition of serving precision and awe-inducing power.
Trailing in the third set at 1-5, 0-15, Serena vented a deafening “C’mon” to amplify the velocity on the return winner.
If this was going to be it, it was simply Serena: a gush of emotions no matter the situation.
Sliding further a few points later, a neat volley by Serena got rid of one match point. Then the second. Then the third. Then the fourth. Then the fifth.
If this was going to be it, it was simply Serena: a dogged fight right until the lights went out on the battle.
When it did, after three hours and five minutes of the Australian playing the match of her life for a 7-5, 6-7(4), 6-1 third-round US Open victory, the American shed a tear and performed the copyrighted twirl. Even in defeat.
This was going to be it then, after over two decades of countless such moments across 1,013 competitive matches almost poetically encapsulated in her 1,014th. That’s where the count is set to stop for the greatest women’s player—arguably and, statistically in the Open Era, simply the greatest—to set foot on a tennis court.
The 40-year-old has begun her evolution path to “explore a different version of Serena”, although a teasing “I always did love Australia” remark, referring to the Australian Open up next, could perhaps leave the reconsideration interpretations—and door—ajar.
The farewell feel though was all there on Friday night at the Arthur Ashe Stadium. As it has been all week at this US Open—video montages before entry, tribute speeches after victory, et al—while Serena kept pushing the full stop through flashes of her exclamatory level in the first couple of rounds.
When the dot did surface, Serena’s eyes blurred. “It’s been the most incredible ride and journey I’ve ever been on in my life,” she said on court. “I’m just so grateful to every single person that’s ever said ‘Go, Serena’ in their life. You got me here.”
So did someone standing in her box, also shedding a tear. “I wouldn’t be Serena if there wasn’t Venus.”
Starting out with her elder sister and father-coach Richard Williams from the public courts of Compton, California notorious for its crime and gang violence, there could be plenty more reasons why there wouldn’t be Serena. Yet there was Serena, who’d changed the way the game was played and perceived.
Her 1999 US Open singles crown at 17—the first by an African-American woman since Althea Gibson in the 1950s—would prove to be just the starting block towards that in a lane less travelled, let alone set ablaze.
Serena’s torch illuminated with 23 Grand Slam singles titles—an Open Era high across gender; her five-year quest to match Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 remains one short—14 doubles titles with Venus, a 319-week reign as the singles world No 1 that went well into her mid-thirties and a Slam title while pregnant at the 2017 Australian Open.
It’s more the nature of it than numbers: shattering stereotypes in the women’s game. Serena pumped in more power than grace that was just as beautiful to watch and daunting to face. Serena poured in emotions that brought along yells, first bumps, smashed racquets and frequent run-ins with officials. Serena was as unabashed about her personality as she was brutal about her tennis on court.
Off it there’s a deeper Serena signature which, according to Rafael Nadal, further elevates her as “one of the most important athletes in the history of the sport”. The face of history has been immeasurable inspiration for kids, women, people of colour and mothers to dream big and go all out. Look no further than Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff for proof just within the sport.
“Sometimes being a woman, a Black woman, in the world, you kind of settle for less,” Gauff, 18, said. “I feel like Serena taught me that. From watching her, she never settled for less.”
Less was never an option for Serena. Much like walking away from a battle and drifting away from her beliefs wasn’t.
“The fight, I’m such a fighter,” Serena said when asked what she’d like to be remembered for. “I feel like, I really brought something to tennis—just the different look, the fist bumps, the crazy intensity, the passion. I think that’s a really good word.
“I can go on and on. But I’m just so grateful that I had this moment, that I’m Serena.”
Simply Serena. One of a kind.