Serena Williams was defeated in her third round match at the U.S. Open on Friday, likely bringing an end to her extraordinary singles tennis career. In front of a sell-out crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Ajla Tomljanovic defeated the 23-time Grand Slam champion in three tension-filled sets, 7-5, 6-7, 6-1.
In an interview after the match, Williams thanked her fans, parents and family for their decades of support.
“Thank you daddy, I know you’re watching. Thanks mom,” Williams said, fighting back tears.
“It all started with my parents and they deserve everything so I’m really grateful for them,” she added. She also thanked her sister, telling the crowd, “I wouldn’t be Serena if there wasn’t Venus.”
What a week. What an evening.
Thank you, #Serena. pic.twitter.com/KJ1zDkQGUs
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 3, 2022
Unwilling to go quietly, Williams staved off five match points to prolong the three-hours-plus proceedings, as some spectators stood to watch, camera phones at the ready. No one — save, of course, Tomljanovic — wanted this to end.
It did on Tomljanovic’s sixth chance, when Williams netted a shot.
If this was, indeed, the last hurrah, she took her fans on a thrill-a-minute throwback ride at the hard-court tournament that was the site of a half-dozen of her 23 Grand Slam championships. The first came in 1999 in New York, when Williams was just 17.
But she faltered against Tomljanovic, a 29-year-old Australian who is ranked 46th.
Williams gave away leads in each set, including the last, in which she was up 1-0 before dropping the final six games.
On one point in the second set, Williams’ feet got tangled and she fell to the court, dropping her racket. She finished with 51 unforced errors, 21 more than Tomljanovic.
Williams let a 5-3 lead vanish in the first set. She did something similar in the second, giving away edges of 4-0 and 5-2, and requiring five set points to finally put that one in her pocket. From 4-all in the tiebreaker, meaning Williams was three points from defeat, she pounded a 117 mph ace, hit a forehand winner to cap a 20-stroke exchange, then watched Tomljanovic push a forehand long.
Williams, 40, wrote in Vogue last month that she is “evolving away from tennis.” She has hinted that this year’s U.S. Open would be her last tournament, but has not explicitly stated that the final Major of the year would also be her final competition as a professional tennis player.
“Yeah, I’ve been pretty vague about it, right?” Williams said following her win in the first round. “I’m going to stay vague, because you never know.”
Williams’ first round match against Danka Kovinić of Montenegro was a star-studded affair, with the likes of Spike Lee, Francisco Lindor, former President Bill Clinton and Katie Couric in attendance. Arthur Ashe Stadium, the largest tennis stadium in the world, was packed with more than 23,000 fans while thousands more watched on screens around the grounds of the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Queens. It was the largest crowd ever for a night session at the U.S. Open, according to The Associated Press.
Following her straight sets victory, Williams was greeted by “CBS Mornings” co-host Gayle King, who hosted a brief ceremony for the six-time U.S. Open champion, highlighted by a video narrated by Oprah.
She won again Wednesday against No. 2 seed Anett Kontaviet in a three-set, third-round match.
On Thursday, she teamed up with her sister, seven-time Grand Slam winner Venus Williams, in doubles, but they lost in the first round. Venus Williams, 42, lost her first round singles match to Germany’s Alison Van Uytvanck on Tuesday.
Serena Williams has the most Grand Slam singles titles of any man or woman in the Open Era, which began in 1968. Only Australia’s Margaret Court, whose career began prior to that, has more, with 24 Major titles to her name.
Williams won 10 of those titles after turning 30, more than any other woman in the history of the sport. Her last singles title came in 2017 at the Australian Open, where she defeated her sister in straight sets.
In anticipation of her impending retirement, tickets for the first days at the U.S. Open became a hot commodity.
“Once Serena announced she would play the U.S. Open, we sold out in a nanosecond for Monday night and Tuesday night,” tournament director Stacey Allaster told The Associated Press. “You can see on the secondary market, the get-in price is $230. I saw $5,800 for a courtside seat this evening. Look, this is a historic moment for the Williams family, for Serena and our sport.”
Williams has stated that her decision to step away from the game of tennis is partly motivated by her desire to commit more time to her family.
“But these days, if I have to choose between building my tennis résumé and building my family, I choose the latter,” she wrote in Vogue.
In an interview with Time, published Monday, Williams said that her daughter, Olympia, “doesn’t like when I play tennis.”
“It’s hard to completely commit when your flesh and blood is saying, ‘Aw,"” Williams said.
The tennis icon said she would like to have another child and also focus on Serena Ventures, a venture capital firm she recently started.
In addition to her 23 Grand Slam singles titles, Williams also has 14 Major doubles titles, 73 total singles titles — fifth most of any woman in the Open Era — and an Olympic gold medal.