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Commentary: Serena Williams willed her way to a glorious goodbye

Sept. 3, 2022 Updated Sat., Sept. 3, 2022 at 10:48 p.m.

Serena Williams, of the United States, during a match against Ajla Tomljanovic, of Australia, during the third round of the U.S. Open in New York, Friday, Sept. 2, 2022.  (New York Times)
Serena Williams, of the United States, during a match against Ajla Tomljanovic, of Australia, during the third round of the U.S. Open in New York, Friday, Sept. 2, 2022. (New York Times)
By Christopher Clarey New York Times

NEW YORK – It was match point, which Serena Williams had faced many times before. It was career point, which was startlingly new territory for one of the greatest athletes of any era.

But Williams, on this night like no other at the U.S. Open, remained true to herself and her competitive spirit on Friday, with the end of her 27-year run as a professional tennis player suddenly becoming very real.

Yes, Ajla Tomljanovic was about to serve for a place in the fourth round, at 40-30 with a 5-1 lead in the third set. But Williams, clearly weary after nearly three hours of corner-to-corner tennis, was not yet prepared to accept what looked inevitable.

She saved one match point with a swinging backhand volley. She saved a second with a cocksure forehand approach that Tomljanovic could not handle. She saved a third with a clean forehand return winner that had fans in the sold-out Arthur Ashe Stadium shouting: “Not yet! Not yet!”

“I’ve been down before,” Williams said later. “I think in my career I’ve never given up. In matches, I don’t give up. Definitely wasn’t giving up tonight.”

She saved a fourth match point. She saved a fifth, and by now it was clear, as the winners and bellows and clenched fists kept coming, that Williams would get a fitting finish.

A record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title in her farewell tournament at age 40 was always going to be a long shot. An inspiring last dance was no guarantee, either, given all the matches and miles in her legs and all the rust on her game in recent weeks.

But she salvaged it in New York. She conjured it with all of her pride, power and sheer will. She found a familiar gear in the second set of her opening-round victory over Danka Kovinic. And she stayed in that groove as she defeated No. 2 seed Anett Kontaveit in the next round before coming up against Tomljanovic, a tall and elegant baseliner who represents Australia but lives in Florida, and who was born and raised in Croatia.

Barring a major change of heart from her more famous opponent, Tomljanovic will be the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the last player to face Serena Williams in an official match?”

But although Williams could not fend off the sixth career point, striking a low forehand into the net, she did strike a much more appropriate final note at Flushing Meadows than if she had chosen to forgo this final comeback.

At last year’s Wimbledon, she retired with a leg injury before the first set of her first-round match was done, crying as she hobbled off the Center Court grass where she had won so often.

She was 39 then and took nearly another year to return to competition. But as the tears came for a different reason on Friday night on court in her postmatch interview, and then again in her news conference, it was evident that she achieved a measure of what she was searching for by returning to play.

She gave herself a suitably grand stage to thank her fans and her family, including her parents, Richard Williams and Oracene Price, and her big sister, Venus Williams, who was watching from the players box just as she did when Serena won the family’s first Grand Slam singles title at the U.S. Open in 1999. They went on to win 29 more, Serena finishing with 23 and Venus, though not yet retired, almost certainly finishing with the seven she has now.

“I wouldn’t be Serena if there wasn’t Venus, so thank you, Venus,” Serena said. “She’s the only reason that Serena Williams ever existed.”

Tomljanovic did herself proud Friday, effectively countering Williams’ signature power and handling the deeply partisan and sometimes unsportsmanlike crowd with great composure and dignity. Fans cheered for Tomljanovic’s missed serves and errors, and with the match in its final stages, some shouted “Serena!” in the midst of her service motion.

What was clear Friday as the match extended well past two hours and into a third set was that Williams’ stamina and speed were fading. That is understandable with her lack of match play in recent months and in light of all the physical and emotional energy she was absorbing and expending with the public roaring her on. She also had played, with Venus, an intense doubles match the night before in Ashe Stadium, losing in two close sets.

But understandable does not negate the reality that she looked late to the ball, and often nowhere near the ball, as Tomljanovic broke up baseline rallies by firing winners to break her for a 5-1 lead.

It looked, just for a moment, as if Williams, one of the most ferocious competitors in tennis history, would have a sotto voce finish.

Instead, she dug in and dug deep, drawing strength from past revivals and again showing no fear of swinging for the lines with a Grand Slam match at stake.

Should we really have been surprised?

As the points and great escapes piled up, Pam Shriver, the ESPN analyst sitting courtside, turned to those of us in the same row and said wide-eyed, “There should be a documentary just about this game.”

Not a bad call, but perhaps better to make it the final act of a documentary about this past week, when Williams shook off the rust for three final rounds and gave the crowds and all those who have followed her for nearly three decades, through triumphs and setbacks, an extended reminder of what made her great.

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