Serena Williams' last performance was one of her best

Wellfriends and family lingered near the players’ exit at Arthur Ashe Stadium, at least three dozen deep, to witness Serena Williams leaving the US Open – and almost certainly retiring from his unique tennis career – for the last time. Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia beat Williams 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-1 in a 3-hour, 5-minute epic on Friday night in New York, and those close to her believe she is it’s fitting to congratulate Williams on her fine final effort. Her sister Venus sympathized Billie Jean King. singer ciara, a close friend of Williams and her husband, Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson, were standing near the elevator. Serena’s husband, Alexis Ohanian, entered the waiting room holding their daughter Olympia, who wore beaded braids just like her mother and aunt during their early years on the professional tennis tour. Olympia punched Ciara.

The rally was far from the funeral that is usual for a typical defeat of Serena Williams at the US Open. For example, in 2015, after a shock semifinal loss to Italy’s Roberta Vinci that cost her a Grand Slam for the calendar year, Williams bolted from the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center as quickly as possible. “I don’t want to talk about how disappointing it is for me,” she said in her brief post-match news conference that day. “If you have any other questions, I’m open to it.”

No, it was a holiday gathering. People laughed, smiled, hugged, if they weren’t wiping away the occasional sentimental tear. The cheerful tone was quite appropriate. Because the likely final match of Williams’ career encapsulated all of her greatness.

Because she fought and fought in her third round fight against Tomljanovic. Even down 5-1 in the third set, with Tomljanovic serving to close it out, few in the near-crazy crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium, eager to help Williams win, believed the match would end in defeat. Why would you when on Tomljanovic’s first match point, Williams smashed a backhand winner into the net. When on Tomljanovic’s second match point, Williams’ forehand sent Tomljanovic racing deep left: her backhand shot fell short. On Tomljanovic’s third match point, Williams sent Tomljanovic’s serve straight back past her for the winner. On Tomljanovic’s fourth match point, Williams forced another Tomljanovic error. Or when, on Tomljanovic’s fifth match point, Williams hit an inside-out forehand return on Tomljanovic’s soft second serve. She hit another aggressive winner.

Finally, on Tomljanovic’s sixth match point, Williams sent a forehand into the net to end it. The last game ended with 22 points. Williams had three break points but Tomljanovic held strong. Tina Turner’s song, “The Best,” was played at high volume at Arthur Ashe Stadium. After Williams left the stage, Tomljanovic got his due from the partisan crowd. Throughout the match, the fans cheered her service errors. After she won a point, the only people cheering for her in the entire sellout crowd of 23,859 at Ashe were about half a dozen who sat in her box.

Read more: What Serena Williams gave the world

A patron loudly expressed his love for Serena during Tomljanovic’s serve, a violation of Tennis Etiquette 101. (Tomljanovic made a mistake but won the point.) At one point in the match, Tomljanovic approached the chair umpire to notice the distracting noise. She was booed.

She understood Serena’s enthusiasm. “I thought she was going to beat me,” Tomljanovic said in her post-match interview on court to laughs. “So the pressure wasn’t on me. She is Serena. Even down to the last point I knew she was in a really good position to win. Even when losing 5-1.”

For the first time in her last US Open, Williams dropped an opening set. But she led 4-0 in the second before the set unraveled: as Williams served to go up 5-0, Tomljanovic instead broke her and broke back to force a tiebreak. Tomljanovic had all the momentum, but Williams wasn’t about to end her career by losing a tiebreak. She won the last two points of the tiebreak on Tomljanovic’s serve; one was a forehand winner on the 20th shot of a rally that caused a near-explosion in the stadium.

So Williams left tennis, giving a thrill. After the match, she even offered some wiggle room. “You never know,” she said of a possible return. She continues to nurture her love for Australia. But when TIME asked her last week if she had made one final trip to Melbourne, where she won seven Australian Open titles, she answered: “I won’t do that.”

Her final dance at the US Open created unprecedented excitement for the tournament. Friday’s US Open set a single-day attendance record with 72,039 fans coming to the day and night sessions. According to StubHub, ticket sales jumped 20 percent after Williams won Wednesday night. Twitter announced Friday night that Williams is the “most tweeted female athlete” of all time.

At her final tennis press conference, Williams was asked to name the proudest moment of her career. She pointed to her victory at the 2015 French Open. In this tournament, she curled up in the fetal position after the semifinals because she was so sick. She was shaking and crying in the dressing room for at least 45 minutes. Her mother and older sister Isha had to strip Williams of her soaked clothes. She couldn’t do it alone. Her coach at the time, Patrick Mouratoglou, said at the time that Williams had a temperature of 104 degrees at 10:00 p.m. the night before that final. Williams won in straight sets the next day.

Williams said he will spend part of his first day as a retired athlete, Saturday, going out to karaoke. “I’m honestly so grateful to have this moment,” she said, “and to be Serena.”

And with that she left the interview room and headed down the hall towards Ash. She hugged the WTA’s chief press officer, who has accompanied Williams to countless interviews over the years, near the locker room. The press rose. Serena, who was carrying an empty pink Gatorade bottle, turned the corner and walked into the room where friends and family were waiting. They applauded her. Well-wishers formed a sort of reception queue. She told herself to stay calm as she wiped the tears from each eye. She went outside and snuggled up with close friend Caroline Wozniacki, the now-retired former world No.1. They talked about old times. “This is the most legendary night ever,” Williams said. They didn’t seem to be talking about tennis.

After a few last pictures with her coachher agent and other members of the team, Serena Williams—the greatest athlete of all time, perhaps even the greatest athlete of all time—walked out of the gates and settled into a waiting black SUV. At 11:26 p.m., on 09/02/2022, the car drove off in the west direction. To the well-earned karaoke. And to Serena, a new life.

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