Serena Williams’ US Open and probably career ends with Tomljanovic defeat
There was no fairytale ending for Serena Williams at the US Open. The 23-times major singles champion was eliminated from the tournament she has won six times with a 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-1 defeat to Ajla Tomljanovic on Friday night before a rollicking crowd of nearly 24,000 at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Williams, who entered her presumptive farewell event ranked 605th and with one win in nearly 15 months, had rolled back the years in her first week at Flushing Meadows with a series of vintage showings beneath the lights of the world’s biggest tennis stadium.
This one, a stirring back-and-forth encounter of high quality and intensity that unfolded over more than three hours, was somehow her most rousing performance of all.
She battered Tomljanovic back with 115mph serves and flat groundstrokes that exploded off the strings. She came to net, glided about the court with a fluidity thought long gone and punctuated winners with guttural roars.
But Tomljanovic, a 29-year-old Australian ranked 46th, was unrattled by a crowd that cheered her service faults and errors, giving as good as she got and maintaining her high level when Williams tightened up.
Trailing 3-5 in the opener with Williams serving for the set, the back-to-back Wimbledon quarter-finalist won four straight games to stake the early advantage. From deficits of 0-4 and 2-5 in the second, she fought off four set points before finally bowing in a tie-breaker, but not before extending the middle act to a taxing 83 minutes and making her opponent expend valuable reserves of energy.
After Tomljanovic was broken immediately to open the decider, she rattled off six straight games to slam the door.
Even at the death Williams didn’t go quietly. In one final show of her indomitable fighting spirit and titanic self-belief, she staved off five match points, each prompting deafening roars, before finally netting an approach forehand on the sixth after 3hr 5min.
“I tried, Ajla just played a little bit [better],” Williams said, fighting through tears.
“Thank you, daddy. I know you’re watching. Thanks, mom. It all started with my parents and they deserve everything. I wouldn’t be Serena if there wasn’t Venus, so thank you, Venus. She’s the only reason that Serena Williams ever existed. It’s been a fun ride. I’m just so grateful to every single person that’s ever said: ‘Go, Serena’ in their life. You got me here.”
Williams, who turns 41 in a few weeks and has played sparingly over the past couple of seasons due to a hamstring injury, looked far below her standard in a first-round loss at this year’s Wimbledon against a player ranked outside the top 100. She appeared even further out of her depth in a pair of one-sided defeats at US Open tune-up events after she announced her plans to retire last month.
But her resurgent form in Queens has left many pondering whether she is really prepared to walk away, none more than Williams, who has strongly hinted this will be her final event.
Even after this match, she maintained her vague tack when pressed and alluded to the next grand slam on the calendar: “I don’t know, I’m not thinking about [playing again]. I always did love Australia though.”
“Clearly I’m still capable, [but it] takes a lot more than that,” she added. “I’m ready to, like, be a mom, explore a different version of Serena.”
The remarkably poised Tomljanovic, who advanced to a fourth-round meeting on Sunday against Liudmila Samsonova, said:
“I’m feeling really sorry just because I love Serena just as much as you guys do.
“What she’s done for the sport is incredible. I never thought I’d have the chance to play her in her last match when I was a kid watching all those finals.
“I just really blocked it [the crowd] out as much as I could. It did get to me a few times internally. I didn’t take it personally because I would be cheering for Serena, too, if I wasn’t playing her. But it was definitely not easy. There was no other way.”