She spoke just a minute after Williams left the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium, probably for the last time as a pro. Tomljanovic defeated her in an epic three-hour match.
It was one of the greatest victories of her life, but there were no celebrations.
“I love Serena as much as you do,” Tomljanovic told the crowd, recalling how she idolized her as a child. “It’s a surreal moment for me.”
Williams had saved five match points until the sixth ended their campaign. She had built up at the US Open after winning her first two games against them Thank you Kovinic and World #2 Anett Kontaveit. She was the favorite against Tomljanovic – for the first time in a match in this tournament. There was a growing sense that she could do the unthinkable and win it all; The farewell tour turned into the most incredible finale last dance that only Serena Williams could create.
But notable sports tales are rare. And for each of these unicorns, there are far more tales of dream narratives ruined by reluctant protagonists.
“I feel like a villain,” Tomljanovic said afterwards.
She’s not the first to feel this way, nor will she be the last. Some of the sport’s greatest figures have not been able to end their careers on a high note and it leaves a lasting impression on those who stopped their heroes in the final steps.
Take Larry Holmes when he stopped Muhammad Ali in October 1980. Ali had returned from a year-long retirement to take up the fight with Holmes, but Ali was a shadow of his former self, and Holmes finally won when Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee stopped the fight in the 10th round. Holmes cried in his post-fight interview. “If you fight a friend, for me a brother, you can’t get happiness” said Holmes. “I was fighting a no-win situation.” Ali would fight again and lose.
There are the other types of great sports tales where an oldtimer manages to turn back the years to throw the younger generation off guard, only to fail. There were those four memorable days at the 2009 Open when 59-year-old Tom Watson narrowly missed the Claret Jug when he lost a 1-shot lead on the final day and then fell in a playoff to Stewart Cink.
Afterwards, Cink was asked if he felt he ruined the ending of a Hollywood movie. “No, I don’t feel that way. I feel like whether Tom was 59 or 29, you know, he was one of the field and I had to play everyone on the field and on the court to get on top,” said Cink. “I don’t think anything can be taken away. Someone may disagree, but it’s going to be hard to convince me.”
He added: “I’m not ashamed. I’m not disappointed. I’m over the moon to have won this tournament.”
And then there are the pre-planned goodbyes, like Serena’s, where nostalgia and faith drive all viewers into a frenzy in hopes of witnessing one last golden moment. Usain Bolt’s departure from the sport looked like a guaranteed gold medal in the 100m at the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London for all the world to see.
But instead it was Justin Gatlin who took gold, with Bolt in third place.
As Gatlin did his victory lap, he was booed by the crowd. “Bolt came up to me after the race and said I didn’t deserve all the booing from the crowd and he’s glad I stayed stylish.” said Gatlin. “It’s a surreal moment. He will be a character that will be widely missed, even by me.”
six days later, Bolt’s hamstring buckled on the home stretch of the men’s 4×100. It would be his final act on the racetrack – the image of the fallen hero, whose body gives way and only adds to the legend.
On Friday at Arthur Ashe, Tomljanovic’s triumphs were met with silence and then a crescendo of noise to try and rouse Williams. It took Tomljanovic 3 hours and 5 minutes to win but he built on a lifetime of skill and mental toughness. Every time she netted her first serve, the mistake was cheered. The one time her frustration boiled over and she spoke to the referee about being interrupted by noise from the crowd, her annoyance was met with boos.
To deal with the vast majority of the 23,859 viewers cheering for her opponent, she channeled Novak Djokovic‘s tactics. “If the crowd was against him, he just pretends it’s for him,” she said after her second-round win. “When they sing, I don’t know, Rafa, Roger, whoever, he hears Novak, Novak. I kind of liked that answer.”
It worked for her. “I used that [tactic] and I also blocked it out as best as possible,” said Tomljanovic after beating Williams. “It got to me inside a couple of times. I mean I didn’t take it personally because I would be cheering for Serena too if I wasn’t playing her. But it definitely wasn’t easy. There was no other way.”
She formed her own “little bubble,” and then, after three sets of blistering tennis, she watched Williams’ interview on the court and had a million emotions coursing through her.
“[It was] probably the most contradictory feeling I’ve ever had after a win,” she said. “During the game I was so eager to win. But when it ended, it almost didn’t feel right. When she started talking about her family and everything, yes I got emotional because I can understand a strong bond with your family. When she said that she wouldn’t be there without her, I can understand that very well. The whole moment after that was just a little bit difficult to handle.”
The crowd applauded after she spoke – and it felt like the first cheer she’d heard that night, apart from the 15 or so people seated in her box for the game.
Tomljanovic meets on Sunday Lyudmila Samsonova in the fourth round. It won’t be back on Ashe, but on the next largest show court – Louis Armstrong. To get back to Ashe, she needs to keep winning.
Her biggest Grand Slam return to date is two quarter-final exits at Wimbledon. She overcame a monumental hurdle to try and improve on that.
But whatever happens here, she will always have the honor of being the player to beat Williams from her recent US Opens. And with that, she will be the answer to one of the great trivia questions in sport.
“I mean, nobody’s going to pronounce my name right,” she said. “This is going to suck. But I mean, I don’t think I’ve been part of tennis history, so that’s pretty cool. … I really wanted to play against Serena before she retires.
“If I were the loser today, I would probably be very sad. I don’t want to say I’m sad, but I’m just a little torn.”