NEW YORK — Serena Williams delivered an emotional speech following what will likely be their last tennis match on Friday night, a 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-1 loss over three hours Ajla Tomljanovic in the third round of the US Open.
“Thanks Dad, I know you’re watching. Thanks mom,” Williams said before beginning to cry during her pregame interview with ESPN’s Mary Joe Fernandez. “Everyone who’s here, who’s been on my side for so many years, decades…
“Those are tears of joy, I think. I dont know. And I wouldn’t be Serena if it wasn’t for Venus, so thank you Venus. She’s the only reason Serena Williams ever existed… It’s been a fun ride. It was the most incredible ride and journey I have ever been on.”
Williams, 40, first mentioned her impending departure from the sport in a Vogue essay posted during last month’s Canadian Open, citing her desire to have another child. In the piece, she said she preferred the word “evolution” to “retirement” and acknowledged how difficult it was to make a decision.
During her post-game press conference, Williams told reporters she was looking forward to spending more time with her daughter and “exploring a different version of Serena.” She hasn’t completely closed the door on a future comeback, however.
When Fernandez asked her if she would reconsider walking away, she smiled. “I don’t think so, but you never know.”
A little later, at her post-match press conference, Williams joked on the same topic: “I’ve always loved Australia,” the country that will host the next Grand Slam tournament in January.
Since her announcement, Williams has been hailed a hero by crowds in Toronto, Cincinnati and New York. All three of their matches helped break US Open attendance records and have included everyone from former President Bill Clinton to Tiger Woods. Even her doubles match with sister Venus was played to a packed house on Ashe on Thursday night.
William’s training session on Friday drew thousands just hoping to catch a glimpse. The fervor for Williams even caused ESPN to blow up State of Michigan–western michigan Broadcast college football game to ESPN2 to broadcast Williams game to primary channel.
William’s career was celebrated after her first-round match with an on-pitch ceremony hosted by Gayle King, which included a video narrated by Oprah Winfrey and a tribute by Billie Jean King.
“Thank you for showing us what it means to come back and for never backing down,” Winfrey said. “Thank you for changing the face of the game and inspiring the next generation. Thank you for thinking outside the box and encouraging us to keep evolving. Thank you for showing us how to love the sport and for always loving us back.”
Aside from her interview with Fernandez, there was no formal ceremony after Friday’s game, but the crowd – including Spike Lee, Gayle King, Stan Smith, Saquon Barkley, Russell WilsonCiara, Bella Hadid, PK Subban and Venus – showered her with a steady ovation, including several “Se-re-na” chants. Despite their collective passion and apparent admiration, it wasn’t enough to propel Williams to another win.
After Williams lost the first set, a deciding set seemed all but guaranteed after Williams won the first four games of the second set, but Tomljanovic and her powerful forehand put up a relentless fight. She fended off four set points in the eighth game of the set with nine twos. Ultimately, Williams forced a third set after an intense tiebreak.
But she had little time for the deciding set and struggled with her movement. After breaking Tomljanovic in the opening game, the Australian won the next six games to decide the match. Williams fought to the end, however, and Tomljanovic needed six match points to prevail.
“I’ve been down before. … I’m not really giving up,” Williams said. “I’ve never given up in my career. I don’t give up in matches. I definitely didn’t give up tonight.”
Tomljanovic said she wasn’t surprised by Williams’ fight until the end. “She’s Serena,” Tomljanovic said during her own on-pitch interview. “It’s just who she is and she’s the greatest of all time. Point.”
Tomljanovic is an unabashed fan of Williams, having grown up playing her on TV.
“I’m really sorry just because I love Serena as much as you do,” said Tomljanovic, who has not progressed past the quarterfinals at any major. “And what she has done for me, for tennis, is incredible. It’s a surreal moment for me.”
Then Tomljanovic added with a laugh: “I just thought she was going to hit me. … She is Serena. That’s just how she is: She’s the greatest of all time. Point.”
After congratulating her opponent, Williams waved to the crowd and briefly covered her tear-stained face with a towel before giving her interview. When Williams stepped off for the final time in a singles match at Arthur Ashe Stadium when Tina Turner’s “Simply The Best” was played, it marked the possible end of a 27-year career that transcended sports and propelled her into a global superstar.
Williams’ mark of 23 major titles is the highest of any player in the Open Era, trailing only Margaret Court (24) for the most of all time. Her long track record includes 73 career singles titles, 16 major doubles and mixed doubles titles, 4 Olympic gold medals, and 319 weeks at No. 1.
She holds various records, including most hard-court major titles (13) by any player, most Grand Slam wins by a woman (367) and is tied with Chris Evert for most US Open singles titles (6). Open connected epoch. Williams is one of four tennis players in the Open Era to have a singles title in four different decades. At 35, she became the oldest woman to win a major and ranked No. 1.
Williams has also made a name for herself off the court since she burst onto the scene. A longtime member of the WTA Player Council, she championed equal prize money for women alongside Venus and has become an advocate for equality and social justice.
“It’s been a long time. I’ve played tennis my whole life,” Williams said Friday night after executing a final twist-and-wave move normally reserved for wins. “It’s a little early, but I am.” happy too, because I mean, that’s what I wanted, what I want.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.