As a champion who says she hates goodbyes, Serena Williams could have managed her exit from tennis in other ways.
In a press release or Instagram post; B. through an interview after the game or by simply walking away and staying away without formulating her farewell.
Instead, Williams made it clear this week that the end is very near, giving herself and her audience at large a runway to do the job just right, an extended – but not too long – opportunity of Williams’ long and phenomenal career to be fair.
“Enjoy every game,” said Tracy Austin, the former No. 1 turned television analyst.
The first chance came on a warm Wednesday night in Toronto in a packed stadium against a tough and experienced opponent, Belinda Bencic, whose smooth counterattack unsurprisingly overwhelmed the 40-year-old Williams.
Bencic finished the National Bank Open second round win 6-2, 6-4 but, as Bencic rightly pointed out, it wasn’t really about Wednesday’s result. It was about the occasion.
Although on-pitch interviews are usually the domain of winners, Bencic quickly and gracefully stepped aside after her win, leaving Williams the stage and mic.
“It was a lot of emotion,” Williams said as the tears came. “Obviously I love playing here and I’ve always loved playing here. I wish I could have played better but Belinda played so well today. But simply, yeah, it’s been a pretty interesting 24 hours.”
Above all, it has been a fascinating 27 years since Williams first played in Canada. She began her professional career in 1995 at the Bell Challenge, a now-defunct tournament in Quebec City. debuted at the age of 14 partly to avoid being subjected to the age restrictions that the women’s tour was soon to impose.
She lost in the first qualifying round to USA’s Annie Miller, who was world number 149 at the time, but that was hardly a premonition. Williams has become the greatest player of the 21st century, joining the very short list of greatest players of all time alongside Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Margaret Court.
Williams has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, a behind-court record, and has won 50 other tour singles titles, including three at the Canadian Open in 2001, 2011 and 2013.
There wouldn’t be a fourth title in Canada, but that wasn’t an obstacle for her create a lot of excitement and emotions when she played her last professional game there.
Williams announced her impending retirement – she intends to survive the US Open – in a poignant way I essay in Vogue that was released on Tuesday. That was the day after she won her first singles match in more than a year in the opening round in Toronto, defeating Nuria Parrizas-Diaz of Spain.
Before Williams’ second-round duel with Bencic, excitement built up quickly.
Karl Hale, tournament director at the National Bank Open since 2006, said that after the news of his retirement broke, the tournament sold more tickets for the Williams-Bencic showdown than any of its men’s games, remarkable for a tournament that began in 1881 and is thus almost as old as Canada itself. (Canada was founded in 1867 and the women’s tournament began in 1892.)
“In the players’ lounge, you heard the chatter. It’s the first time I’ve seen so many players training,” Hale said of Williams’ practice on Tuesday. “She practiced at 9 a.m. and everyone out there was watching.”
As of Wednesday night, the stadium north of downtown was packed with 12,500 fans and the tournament would – for the first time – set up an outdoor viewing area for an additional 5,000. William’s husband, Alexis Ohanian, and their daughter, Olympia, 4, watched from the stands.
Before Williams went to court – which she did with her head down and a serious expression – a video with greetings by retired champion Billie Jean King and some of the tour’s rising stars Coco Gauff, Leylah Fernandez and Bianca Andreescu played for the crowd. Wayne Gretzky, the Canadian who was one of the greatest players in hockey history, had a final message for his counterpart.
“Serena Williams, Willie O’Ree in hockey, Jackie Robinson in baseball,” Gretzky said. “You changed everything. They changed sports culture and what Serena has done for boys and girls around the world is spectacular. Serena, congratulations on a wonderful career.”
The crowd wanted Williams to win, and throughout the game it often felt like everyone was trying to force them to win. The fanfare – and the often disruptive shouts from the stands – could have easily unnerved a less experienced player, but Bencic, a 25-year-old Swiss star, handled the moment with aplomb. She is at her best on hard courts with her finely tuned play and exquisite timing, demonstrated again when she deflected Williams’ still-impressive power with half-volleys off the baseline and frontcourt. Bencic won the Olympic singles gold medal in Tokyo last year, and she did in 2015 upset Williams in Toronto in the semifinals on her way to winning the women’s singles title at the age of 18.
Williams had won his three previous games. Although both women have struggled with injuries in recent years, much has changed since Williams defeated Bencic in three sets in the 2019 Hopman Cup team event.
While Bencic has re-established himself as a constant threat, ranking at No. 12, Williams, at No. 407, has played comparatively little and missed a year of action before returning to Wimbledon where she was in July lost in the first round to Harmony Tan, an unseeded French.
Wednesday’s match was only William’s third singles match in the past 14 months. She understandably still finds her reach and is no longer able to maneuver into corners or find the lines on the run like she did in her prime. But when in position, she still has the power and ball-hitting skills to do some serious damage, and she’d occasionally shift into higher gears against Bencic without mustering the consistency to truly threaten her opponent.
However, the floor, if not the match, was soon hers.
“It was just so memorable,” Williams said, her voice cracking, as she addressed the sold-out crowd. “Like I said in my article, I’m terrible at goodbyes, but goodbye – .”
She waited a moment and then added, “Toronto.”
Other emotional farewells await at next week’s Western & Southern Open in the Cincinnati suburbs and then, when body and mind are ready, at the US Open in New York, which begins August 29.
“These are all building blocks for New York,” she said new coach, Eric Hechtman. “And to put it that way, it’s not just popping up as a farewell tour. Today we were able to see championship level tracks and I really believe she has that gear in her and I know she believes it too.
Shawna Richer Contributed reporting from Toronto.