NEW YORK — There’s almost never a moment when Arthur Ashe Stadium is completely silent. It’s too big, too empty. There are too many people rushing to the seats, having hushed conversations or toasting glasses filled with $22 cocktails. When tennis players step into this oversized concrete and steel cave, they know they don’t want it to be quiet or cozy.
And yet, when it was Serena Williams’ turn for what was probably the last match of an eternal career, there was not a sound at all. The usual noise and buzz of almost 24,000 people crammed into this place had melted into an eerie nothingness, as if all those pairs of eyes were focused on the one person who had the power to deliver a moment they loved would always be remembered.
To view Williams with so much awe and intensity at this point in her tennis life is to wonder what is left inside of the player she once was to see how deep her reservoir of greatness still stretches . She announced that this US Open would be her last tournament because she knows how much more difficult it is to summon up those championship qualities at this stage of the game, how tiring it is for the body and mind, even if her tennis is occasionally good enough is to compete with the best players in the world.
Her athletic prowess may be hampered by all the miles and all the injuries and all the natural things that come at age 40, but on Friday night everyone in the arena got one last glimpse of William’s athletic soul. And although she didn’t win the match against Ajla Tomljanovic in 46th place, it would be hard to call what happened in those 3 hours and 4 minutes a loss.
According to the result, Tomljanovic won 7: 5, 6: 7, 6: 1. She will advance to the round of 16. Williams will just move on.
But after months, maybe years, of knowing time was running out, Williams finally felt what it was like to play on a tennis court on Friday against a much younger player who had just as much strength and guts, with everything to finish whatever the New York audience could throw at her. To give herself a chance, Williams had to find something even bigger than all the talent and determination that has won her 23 Grand Slams.
What she found was the rage to force herself into another thundering serve, another uncompromising return, another screeching forehand. And it was almost enough. So, almost enough.
It would take a lot of things to finish Williams seven times in this tournament to have that picture-perfect finish that almost no great athlete gets. While her first match was about surviving the nerves and her second was about turning back the clock, Friday was about channeling the frustration of not being as good as I used to be at 40 into something , which could somehow earn her another match.
Williams was upset with herself for letting the first set escape on serve at 5-3, only to fall into the trap of playing too safe. But she had no intention of sheepishly taking the sting of defeat. She was too pissed off for that anyway. If this was really the end, she would go swinging – literally.
“I’ve never given up in my career and I don’t give up in games,” Williams said. “And I definitely didn’t give up tonight.”
It didn’t end the way she wanted. It didn’t end the way almost nobody at Arthur Ashe Stadium wished it would. What Williams did to go from Compton to arguably the greatest player of all time was a fairy tale. Only the most insignificant part of the story had to end here.
And it will almost certainly stop. Though Williams never referred to this as retirement, She prefers instead to say she’s ‘evolving away from tennis’ She’s played well enough in three games at the US Open to perhaps cast doubt on whether this is the right decision.
What if she had more than just a few weeks to prepare? What if she had a full offseason to train with? Could she win more Grand Slams? These are natural thoughts for Williams, especially now that she felt her tennis level was getting better with every game, despite only playing four times this year before the US Open. But maybe in the end there are questions that are better left unanswered.
“I’ve always loved Australia,” she said with a smile as she hinted at the next major in January. “But you know what? I think I’ve come a long way since last year at Wimbledon, just not sure if that was my last moment or not and it’s much better to make it another moment. It takes a lot of work to get here. Of course I’m still capable, but it takes a lot more of it. I’m ready to be a mom and to discover a different version of Serena.”
This version we saw on Friday could only be proud. Because to the very last point, her sheer power made it an epic tribute to the champion she was and always will be.
In the end, time just wouldn’t play along. Neither did Tomljanovic, whose steely composure in every tense moment was a revelation even to herself.
“I was very nervous and a little bit — I hate to say it — but a little bit scared that things might go really bad out there because I’m playing Serena,” she said. “I have confidence in myself, but at the same time I have a little doubt.”
Tennis matches can go a million ways, and there was one very clear moment when it embarked on a path that both bolstered Williams’ legend and likely ruined their chances of playing in week two of the US Open.
For a moment, as Williams strapped on the ball with all the strength and frustration she could muster to take a 4-0 lead in the second set, it seemed like she was in control even after that frustrating first-set loss accepted. At least it would go into a third set where anything could happen. For the first time all night, Tomljanovic was on his heels and shaking his head.
The crowd was in ecstasy. And suddenly Tomljanovic found himself facing a starving old Serena who seemed ready to win this tournament like it was hers.
But all those long rallies, all those huge hits to the ball, all the mental fatigue of knowing what was at stake had left Williams as vulnerable as a boxer staggering around the ring after hitting a delivered a series of punches that didn’t land.
As Williams put away a forehand for a 5-2 lead and fended off a tough play that saw Tomljanovic threatening to break, she let out a primal scream that hinted at a very different outcome from the one Williams ultimately had to accept.
But the next game – a 24-point marathon – began the slow unraveling of William’s chances. If she had put the device away right there, maybe everything would change. Instead, Tomljanovic intervened just as brutally as Williams. When she finally held serve, it was a body punch that had taken a heavy physical toll on Williams without coming back on the scoreboard.
Williams finally won the set in a stunning tiebreak, cracking down a couple more perfect forehands that opened the door of hope just a little further. She even broke Tomljanovic’s serve in the first game of the third set.
But the damage piled up. William’s competitive endurance decreased. And Tomljanovic just didn’t want to fold.
“I know how much I hate playing against players who don’t give up so willingly,” she said. “You have to earn every point.”
Even at 5-1 in the third set, Tomljanovic didn’t allow herself to believe that she was close to winning the match. She’d seen Williams escape the impossible too many times. She knew Williams played her best tennis when she was backed into a corner.
The crowd knew better. Realizing the inevitable was near, they gave Williams a standing ovation. And she rewarded them with five more match points, fought in another game of riveting determination and stamina.
Tomljanovic knew she hadn’t done anything wrong. She had expected that. And yet it was her job to finish it off, which she eventually did when Williams’ last forehand went into the net.
“During the game I really wanted to win,” she said. “When it ended, it almost didn’t feel right.”
There was no shame in ending a game or career this way. Williams was great, really epic. Tomljanovic was younger, a tiny bit better and most importantly, relentless in the greatest moment of her career.
And suddenly she was in the background as Tina Turner’s “The Best” rolled on and Williams paid tribute to her father Richard, mother Oracene Price, sister Venus, husband, daughter and so many others. She cried, insisting they were tears of joy. She teased a future comeback. But ultimately it was the goodbye she knew had to come, the goodbye she wanted.
She wasn’t allowed to hold a trophy, but she had to dig as deep as she could once more. She had to turn the eerie silence of the world’s largest tennis stadium into an indescribable surge of energy that can never be extinguished.
“I’m honestly so grateful that I had this moment,” she said. “And that I’m Serena.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanClouds