There was no fairytale ending for Serena Williams at the US Open.
The 23-times major singles champion was eliminated from the tournament she has won six times with a 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-1 defeat to Ajla Tomljanović on Friday night before a rolling crowd of nearly 24,000 at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Williams, who entered her presumptive farewell event ranked 605th and with only one win in nearly 15 months, had rolled back the years in her first week at Flushing Meadows with a series of vintage showings beneath the lights of the world’s biggest tennis stadium. This one, a stirring back-and-forth encounter of high quality and intensity that unfolded over more than three hours, was somehow her most rousing performance of them all.
She battered Tomljanović back with 115mph serves and flat groundstrokes that exploded off the strings. She came to net, glided about the court with a fluidity thought long gone and punctuated winners with guttural roars. But Tomljanović, a 29-year-old Australian ranked 46th, was unrattled by a crowd that cheered her service faults and errors, giving as good as she got and maintaining her high level when Williams tightened up.
Trailing 3-5 in the opener with Williams serving for the set, the back-to-back Wimbledon quarter-finalist won four straight games to stake the early advantage. Then from deficits of 0-4 and 2-5 in the second, she fought off four set points before finally bowing in a tiebreaker, but not before extending the middle act to a taxing 83 minutes and making her 40-year-old opponent expend valuable reserves of energy.
After Tomljanović was broken immediately to open the decider, she rattled off six straight games to slam the door on the American star in what is expected to be the final tournament of her transcendent 27-year professional career. Even at the death Williams didn’t go quietly. In one final show of her indomitable fighting spirit and titanic self-belief, she staved off no fewer than five match points, each prompting deafening roars, before finally netting an approach forehand on the sixth after 3hr 5min.
“I tried, Ajla just played a little bit [better],” Williams said, fighting through tears. “Thank you, daddy. I know you’re watching. Thanks, mom. It all started with my parents and they deserve everything.
“I wouldn’t be Serena if there wasn’t Venus, so thank you, Venus. She’s the only reason that Serena Williams ever existed.
“It’s been a fun ride. I’m just so grateful to every single person that’s ever said ‘Go Serena’ in their life. You got me here.”
Williams, who turns 41 in a few weeks and has played sparingly over the past couple of seasons due to a hamstring injury, looked far below her standard in a first-round loss at this year’s Wimbledon against a player ranked outside the top 100. She appeared even further out of her depth in a pair of one-sided defeats at US Open tune-up events after she announced her plans to retire last month.
But her resurgent form in Queens has left many pondering whether she is really prepared to walk away, none more than Williams herself, who has strongly hinted that this year’s US Open will be her final event. Even after Friday’s match, she maintained her vague tack when pressed and alluded to the next grand slam on the calendar: “I don’t know, I’m not thinking about [playing again]. I always did love Australia though.”
“Clearly I’m still able, [but] takes a lot more than that,” she added. “I’m ready to, like, be a mom, explore a different version of Serena.”
The remarkably poised Tomljanovic, who advanced to a fourth-round meeting on Sunday against Liudmila Samsonova, reflected on the “surreal” moment in the immediate aftermath.
“I’m feeling really sorry just because I love Serena just as much as you guys do,” she said. “What she’s done for the sport of tennis is incredible. I never thought I’d have the chance to play her in her last match when I was a kid watching all those finals.”
She added: “I just really blocked it out [the crowd] as much as I could. It did get to me a few times internally. I didn’t take it personally because, I mean, I would be cheering for Serena, too, if I wasn’t playing her. But it was definitely not easy. There was no other way.”