Serena Williams played what she said is likely her final tennis match on Friday night, bowing out in the third round of the US Open to conclude one of the greatest individual careers in sport.
Williams fell to Ajla Tomljanović, 5-7, 7-6, 1-6 during their evening match at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York, before a delirious crowd that came to bid farewell to the 23-time Grand Slam champion.
“It’s been a fun ride. It’s been the most incredible ride and journey I’ve ever been on,” Williams said in a tearful speech after the blistering duel. “To everyone who’s ever said ‘go Serena’ in their life, I’m so grateful, because you got me here.”
Asked definitively on the court if it was her final career match, she replied: “I don’t think so, but you never know.” I don’t know.”
Williams, 40, has said she intends to “evolve” away from tennis, focusing instead on her venture capital fund and adding to her family with husband Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit. During her appearance at this year’s US Open, the US Tennis Association lavished Williams with extensive tributes, including speeches by media mogul Oprah Winfrey and tennis icon Billie Jean King following her first-round victory on Monday night.
Williams’s career has spanned more than two decades, since the late 1990s when she and sister Venus began winning slams as teenagers. Since then she has accumulated the most major single victories of any player, male or female, since the Open era of professional tennis began in 1968. Williams has also won four Olympic gold medals across singles and doubles play, and with more than $94mn in career prize money, she has doubled the total on-court winnings than any other player on the women’s tour.
The Williams era in tennis has coincided with the “Big Four” of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray on the men’s tour — all of whom are consistent ratings draws inspiring a generation of fans and players and dominating the major championships for much of this century.
John McEnroe, the seven-time Grand Slam champion and tennis analyst for ESPN, said Williams’s retirement would leave “a huge void. At the moment it’s going to be almost impossible if not impossible to fill those shoes.”
In New York this week, fellow players have expressed gratitude for the influence both Williams sisters have had on the game.
Ons Jabeur, who this summer became the first woman from Africa to make a Grand Slam singles final at Wimbledon, said the Williams sisters were stars in her homeland of Tunisia. “I got to watch Serena a lot growing up, and like seeing her, how she was really consistent in a lot of things and breaking records everywhere. Her and Venus, to be honest with you. Unbelievable what they did for this sport.”
Earlier in the tournament, Williams and her sister Venus competed in women’s doubles for the first time since 2016 but bowed out in the first round on Thursday. Venus has not made any indication of her own future competition plans but said leading into their doubles meeting that “more than anything, I just want to hold my side of the court up and be a good sister”.
Tomljanović said she didn’t expect to beat Williams. “I feel really sorry because I love Serena just as much.”
She added: “This is just a surreal moment for me.” . . she’s the greatest of all time, period.”