Serena Williams struggled to say goodbye: The elite of the elite usually do

MPerhaps the first hint that retirement was going to be tough for Serena Williams came in her first-person essay in Vogue, where she couldn’t even bring herself to say the word. Then there were the interviews throughout her month-long farewell speech before and during the US Open, where she deftly avoided direct questions and left the door open for a possible comeback. Even in the cathartic aftermath of Friday night’s third-round loss to Ajla Tomljanović, the sudden outpouring of tears seemed to express a finality she couldn’t or wouldn’t articulate in words.

“I don’t think so, but you never know,” she said, when asked if she would reconsider. “I do not know.”

This particular kind of equivocation doesn’t make Williams unique among elite athletes — or, more narrowly, the elite of the elite. Tom Brady is just the latest example of a great champion struggling to close the book on the glory days. Letting go is the hardest part and that’s understandable when you’ve been the best in the world at what you do. There was even a hint from Williams that she might return for the Australian Open. But those extended farewells almost always end in messy defeat: In the final act, Friday night’s epic before a roaring crowd on Arthur Ashe was about as good as it gets.

Williams knows it shouldn’t be that hard for her. With a marriage to a supportive partner who shares her values, a daughter who just turned five, and a venture capital firm that has raised over $100 million, there will be no crisis over her meaning. of the goal. She will continue to define success on her own terms, as she has done for nearly three decades in the eyes of the ruthless public as a working-class black woman from Compton who rewrote the record books of a predominantly held sport, played and watched by affluent white people.

Perhaps that’s because the short-lived final chapter of Williams’ tennis life – as the US Open effectively became the Serena Williams Invitational over the five-day course that saw attendance and viewership records at American television – has been so fulfilling. Freed from the pressure of her usual status as a favorite, Williams was allowed to relish her final round in the unfamiliar role of a bet from afar.

Serena Williams thanks the fans after her loss.
Serena Williams thanks the fans after her loss. Photography: Julian Finney/Getty Images

It’s the special nature of a sport where you just have to beat the player in front of you that not all major championship races are created equal. When Williams won her first of 23 Grand Slam titles at the 1999 US Open at the age of 17, her road to the trophy included five opponents who would one day find themselves in the Hall of Fame: Kim Clijsters, Conchita Martinez, Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis.

Although she received a congratulatory phone call from President Clinton afterwards, it was impossible to fully gauge how her triumph would shape the perception of female athletes in the new millennium. His status as the undisputed No. 1 on the tour quickly followed, along with the pressures that came with it. It was a weight doubled by the two blows dealt against her in American society: to be born a woman and to be born black.

That’s what made Williams’ emotional victory over second seed Anett Kontaveit at this year’s US Open so unique. Williams has played countless big games over the past quarter-century, but not many of them in the underdog role. “I just consider it a bonus,” Williams said on Wednesday after knocking down the world No. 2. “I have nothing to prove. I have nothing to gain. And I have absolutely nothing to lose.

Williams, who turns 41 in a few weeks, had barely played on the tour since suffering a hamstring injury at Wimbledon last year. She returned to the All England Club after a 12-month absence, but looked well below her level against an opponent ranked outside the top 100, then appeared even further from her depth in a pair of one-sided defeats in the development of the US Open. events.

Bettors rated her 50-1 at the start of the US Open. After defeating Konteveit, she was among the tournament favorites. “Honestly, I haven’t played like this since 1998, really,” Williams said Wednesday night. “Literally, I’ve had an X on my back since 1999, so it’s kind of fun. I really like to get out there and enjoy it. It’s been a long time since I got to do that.”

On Friday night, her free-swing, cookie-cutter approach took her to her best tennis of the tournament, though she lost a 5-3 lead in the first set, then 4-0 and 5-2. before winning a tiebreaker in the second pyrrhic. She fought like hell, showing an unprecedented competitive spirit and an imposing self-confidence that became her calling card.

After beating her Australian opponent in the opener of the decider, Williams was finally overcome by the realities of the time. In the blink of an eye, Tomljanović served for the game at 5-1. But she was not ready to leave. She saved the first match point with a swinging backhand volley. Then another with a forehand missile down the line that Tomljanović couldn’t handle. Then another with a searing forehand return winner. Then a fourth, then a fifth as the game stretched beyond three hours.

Besides winning the whole tournament, it was the perfect way out: 15 minutes of pure fighting. What’s left to say? So when Serena says she’s retiring from tennis, maybe it’s time to believe her – and believe herself.

Serena Williams struggled to say goodbye: The elite of the elite usually do

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