Serena Williams ends her career with a third-round loss, but her tennis legacy is only going to grow

Serena Williams

Ajla Tomljanovic defeated Serena Williams in a thrilling three-hour battle on Friday night at the US Open. (Al Bello/Getty Images)

Serena Williams, the icon, the legend, the GOAT, lost in the third round of the US Open, marking her final match as a professional tennis player.

Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic defeated Williams 7-5, 6-7 (4-7), 6-1 at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Friday night in a thrilling battle. The three-hour match had a wild, long comeback that ended with a heated tiebreak in the second set before Tomljanovic finally ended the match in the third – ending one of the best and most-watched matches of the entire tournament.

“I’m really sorry just because I love Serena as much as her and what she has done for me because the sport of tennis is amazing,” Tomljanovic said said after her victory. “I never thought I’d have a chance to play her in her last match when I remember watching her in all those finals as a kid. It’s a surreal moment for me.”

Williams was also 4-0 up in the second set and seemed poised to force a third. But Tomljanovic, who won four straight games to close the opener, fought her way through to force a tie break. She almost got Williams there as well, but Williams escaped in the 7-4 win to extend the match.

Despite taking a 1-0 lead in the final set, Williams quickly dropped the next two and looked exhausted after more than two and a half hours on the court. Tomljanovic rolled from there despite seemingly having the entire stadium against them to win the final set and advance to the fourth round while also ending William’s career.

Williams got emotional on her way off the pitch – she cried “happy tears I think” in her last interview – and thanked her parents and sister Venus.

“Thank you so much, you were amazing today. I wish I had played a little better. Thanks daddy, I know you’re watching. Thanks mom,” Williams said on the court. “I just want to thank everyone who is here who has been on my side for so many years, decades. Oh my god, literally decades. But it all started with my parents and they deserve everything so I’m really grateful to them.

“Those are tears of joy, I guess! I dont know. And I wouldn’t be Serena if it wasn’t for Venus, so thanks Venus.”

Williams is more than this one loss

Williams didn’t want to end her career with a loss like this, but she won’t be remembered for that. Your career is too incredible, too important to be defined in a single moment.

Williams first picked up a tennis racquet at the age of three (although she says it was 18 months), and in a way her fate was sealed from then on. As the younger sister of tennis legend Venus Williams, she spent time watching Venus play, succeed and fail while waiting in the shadows, learning all she could from what she saw.

Venus came into the limelight first, but Serena followed closely behind. She officially arrived in 1999, won the US Open, and then achieved a feat in 2002-2003 that is now called the Serena Slam: she has won all four Grand Slam titles simultaneously over two calendar years. She won the 2002 French Open, 2002 Wimbledon title, 2002 US Open and 2003 Australian Open. In each of these finals, she had to beat her own sister to win the trophy. Williams would win the Serena Slam again in 2014-2015.

She never managed to achieve a calendar slam (she won all four majors in the same year), but she became the first tennis player in history to win a career golden slam (she won all four majors and the Olympic gold medal) both achieved in both singles and doubles. Williams is so dominant in singles that her doubles career alongside Venus is often forgotten. As a doubles team, they remain undefeated in the Grand Slam final, winning 14 and never losing a single one.

Overall, Williams spent 319 weeks as the world’s No. 1 WTA tennis player. Only Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova spent more time at the top than they did. Although she often chose to focus on Grand Slams rather than playing extensively on the WTA Tour, she still won 73 singles titles, which is her fifth all-time in women’s tennis history. She won 23 Grand Slam titles, the most in the Open Era, and one behind Margaret Court for the all-time record.

Breaking boundaries led to support and criticism

While Williams was good, she had more to offer, making headlines and turning heads in ways that transcended tennis and athletics in general. She was bold and bold and didn’t care about the norms for women tennis players. She wore outfits that no one had ever seen on a tennis court, with bright colors, catsuits and tutus. She wore her hair how she wanted, in braids, beads, straight and natural. She proudly showed off her body and refused to hide the muscles she worked so hard to build. She became a fashion icon, appearing alone on the cover of Vogue, designing several clothing lines and becoming a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model.

At the same time, there were few athletes who inspired such passion in the public – both for and against them. She was criticized for her hair and tennis outfits. She was criticized for being too muscular and too loud when playing. She has been criticized for bringing racing to tennis. Williams wasn’t a perfect player, and she’s not a perfect person, so there have been some criticisms — like when she was called overly selfish and combative after her extended argument with the chair umpire during the 2018 US Open women’s final against Naomi Osaka, which she later lost.

But even this example has a racist twist. After this game an Australian newspaper ran a racist caricature of Williams, using racial stereotypes to portray her as an overly muscular animal creature with an ape-like face and huge lips, while Osaka was drawn as a blonde white woman. Some of Williams’ criticism was fair and deserved, but some of it, both in and out of tennis, stemmed from her being a black woman daring to challenge the sport’s white female norms.

Williams’ legacy is immense

Williams has been so good for so long that in recent years she has faced off against players who started playing tennis because they saw her do it. They’re the Serena generation, playing in their own way and style, but carrying a part of Williams with them every time they play.

Therefore, her legacy will only grow. The Serena generation is not static as their history in sport will continue to influence young girls and women around the world, whether they play tennis or not. And the women Williams inspired will inspire a generation of her own, carrying her into the future long after she has stopped competing. Venus and Serena left so players like Coco Gauff could run. And Gauff runs so that others can fly in the future.

Williams has been dominant for so long and individual sport is as much about mental preparedness and performance as it is physical. The only real comparison you can make is Tiger Woods, who has also played in a solo sport. Both have been hugely successful in ways that transcend sport. Both challenged white norms and the largely white history of their sport. And both have managed to narrowly miss an historic mark in their sport: Williams will come just one major title behind Margaret Court’s 24 Grand Slam titles, and Woods remains three major titles behind Jack Nicklaus for the all-time record.

But if Woods’ failure doesn’t define the legacy, it certainly doesn’t define Williams’s. Whether you look at her career as a whole or at the micro level, she has done things no one predicted or expected. For example, even after over a decade of stellar performances, no one could have imagined that she would have (or could have) won the 2017 Australian Open at eight weeks of pregnancy. She then missed a full year of competition after an emergency C-section left her with a pulmonary embolism that left her bedridden for six weeks. Not many expected her to emerge with the same vigor and vigor as before, but she did it anyway, coming back in 2018 to reach the finals of four Grand Slams and the semifinals of two more.

Now, having done (almost) everything she ever wanted to do in tennis, she’s moving on. To focus on her venture capital company, expand her family, and do whatever she wants. She deserves it.

There is no one like Serena Williams and there will never be anyone like her again. Not only did she change the sport of tennis; she changed the world.

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