TORONTO– Serena Williams wore her game face as she entered the stadium for her first game since to tell the world that she is ready to leave professional tennis.
Greeted by a standing ovation, the 23-time Grand Slam champion wasn’t smiling. She didn’t wave. She took a sip from a plastic bottle as she walked in. A few people in the crowd captured the moment with their cell phone cameras. Others held up hand-drawn signs – oh, so many signs – with messages like “Queen” or “Thank you.”
No one knows exactly how many games Williams will play before she finally puts down her racquets, and the 40-year-old American exited the National Bank Open in a 2-6, 4-6 loss on Wednesday night Belinda Bencic.
While there were some familiar fist bumps and “Come on!” shouts throughout the contest, it wasn’t until afterwards that Williams really let her emotions out, her voice shaking and her eyes watering during an on-court interview as Bencic ceded the spotlight.
“Lots of emotion, of course,” Williams told viewers, who encouraged her during the clear 75-degree evening.
The second-round match of hard court tuning for the US Open came a day after she announced “the countdown has begun” to her playing career. She says she wants to have another child and pursue business interests.
She hasn’t said exactly what her final event will be, but it sounded like her final farewell would come at the US Open, which begins August 29 in New York. Williams has won the singles title at Flushing Meadows a half-dozen times—first in 1999; most recently in 2014 – with seven championships each in Wimbledon and the Australian Open and three at the French Open.
“It’s been a pretty interesting 24 hours,” Williams said after Wednesday’s game.
“I’m terrible at goodbyes,” she added, her hand on her chest, “but goodbye Toronto!”
Next up is the Western & Southern Open next week in Cincinnati, another event in preparation for the final Grand Slam tournament of the year.
Williams, a three-time champion in Canada, appropriately started this match with an ace. She also hit another later in the game, showing the excellent serve that has brought her so many match wins, so many tournament titles and so many weeks at No. 1 in the ranking helped.
That elite ability showed occasionally against Bencic, whether that trio of irretrievable serves to close out that opening game or a later shelved swinging volley accented with a yell and a tug on the edge of her white visor.
But a leg injury that sidelined her in the second half of 2021 and the first half of 2022 is only her third game in the last 12 months. There were signs of that, too, and why Williams is no longer the dominant force she has been for so long.
The breaks in her serve, which were never so frequent when she was younger and at the peak of her strength. The not-quite-directed groundstrokes. Inability to resist too much on serve; She earned just one break point in the first set, long missing a return to squander that chance and none in the second.
“I wish I could have played better,” Williams said, “but Belinda played so well today.”
The fact that she met an opponent who was 15 years younger and also very talented didn’t help Williams: Bencic is in 12th place, won gold for Switzerland at the Olympic Games in Tokyo last year and was a Grand Slam semi-finalist.
“It’s always an honor to be on the pitch with her,” said Bencic, “so I think tonight is about her.”
Bencic took home the Toronto Cup in 2015 at the age of 18 when she eliminated Williams in the semifinals to earn the distinction of being the youngest woman to defeat a player many dubbed “GOAT,” eh a self-made poster in the stands on Wednesday explained. – the greatest of all time.