Technically and officially, Serena Williams lost on Friday night.
Technically and officially, Serena Williams played her final main-tour professional tennis match Friday night, unless she might (improbably) choose to unretire.
On the surface, all of this feels like a loss, something wonderful suddenly removed from our lives. There is no doubt tennis fans will miss what Serena Williams brought to the sport. Even those who might not have been fans of hers, due to allegiances with other top players, all respect her greatness, her competitive quality, and the compelling presence she brought to this sport for roughly a quarter of a century.
We’re going to miss Serena, one of the greatest athletes of all time and arguably the greatest tennis player ever. No athlete of her stature and accomplishments leaves without creating an instant awareness that something enormously significant and precious is no longer with us, at least not in the way we are used to. Of course Serena is still here, and of course her life story will continue to inspire and fascinate, but this central part of her life — professional tennis player — is now in the past tense.
This moment comes for every legendary athlete. No one is exempt from the sands of time. When it became known that Serena would make this U.S. Open her last, it was clear that she was not a top-tier title contender. She hadn’t won a match in 2022 before Canada. She did not appear ready to win more than one match in New York.
Serena Williams, the woman we all expected to win virtually every match she played in the years before she became a mother, and at any other point when she stood at the height of her powers, was fully expected to lose early at this U.S. Open.
We all entered a world in which we didn’t wonder if she could go all the way, but if her end — the last match, the last loss — would be noble and defiant and full of the best essence of Serena Williams as an athlete and competitor.
You watched her match against Ajla Tomljanovic. We all did.
Could the end have been any more beautiful and poignant?
Could this last loss have felt any more like a blessing, a special memory, a final reminder of everything which has made Serena Williams so special to the sport of tennis?
This was Serena’s first 3-hour match at the U.S. Open. A 40-year-old champion poured out her body, mind and soul, every last ounce. She also played brilliantly for large portions of the competition. It took a legitimately great response from Tomljanovic — long burdened by mental frailty but given fresh clarity by the thrill of playing Serena — to fend her off.
This was not an aging athlete looking ragged and washed up. This was an iconic champion summoning all her best qualities but being topped by a younger athlete who showed tremendous quality and composure in a highly difficult situation. Excellence marked Serena’s last stand.
The end was going to come. Serena couldn’t escape it. No one can. No one does. No one will.
Pete Sampras wrote a fairytale ending at the 2002 U.S. Open, but he did so at age 31. Serena gave us 10 more years of tennis, 10 more years of memories, 10 more years of her life. She turns 41 later this month. Her longevity meant that a finale marked by a loss, not a win, was the likely outcome for her career’s last act.
Everything about this moment was good and honest and satisfying. Nothing left on the table. Everything thrown at her opponent. This was not a match in which someone had to win in spite of the mediocrity on display. It was a match so good that someone had to lose in spite of competing bravely and performing beautifully.
Serena Williams has filled our lives with so much color, passion, creativity, intelligence, and stage presence for nearly 30 years. This artist’s final work was not a portrait of a woman lifting a trophy, but it was a victory in every other sense.
Like the artist herself, Serena left us with one final true masterpiece.