NEW YORK — Leave it to Serena Williams to not want to go quietly, to not want this match, this trip to the U.S. Open, this transcendent career of hers, to really, truly end.
Right down to what were, barring a change of heart, the final minutes of her quarter-century of excellence on the tennis court, and an unbending unwillingness to be told what wasn’t possible, Williams tried to mount one last classic comeback, earn one last vintage victory, with fans on their feet in a full Arthur Ashe Stadium, cellphone cameras at the ready.
The 23-time Grand Slam champion staved off five match points to prolong the three-hours-plus proceedings, but could not do more, and was eliminated from the U.S. Open in the third round by Ajla Tomljanovic 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-1 on Friday night in what is expected to be her final contest.
“It’s been the most incredible ride and journey I’ve ever been on in my life,” Williams said, tears streaming down her cheeks shortly after one final shot of hers landed in the net. “I’m so grateful to every single person that’s ever said, ‘Go, Serena!’ in their life.”
She turns 41 this month and recently told the world that she is ready to start “evolving” away from her playing days — she expressed distaste for the word “retirement” — and while she remained purposely vague about whether this appearance at Flushing Meadows definitely would represent her last hurrah, everyone assumed it will be.
Asked during an on-court interview whether she might reconsider walking away, Williams replied: “I don’t think so, but you never know.”
With two victories in singles this week, including over the No. 2 player in the world, Anett Kontaveit, on Wednesday, Williams took her fans on a thrill-a-minute throwback trip at the hard-court tournament that was the site of a half-dozen of her championships.
The first came in 1999 in New York, when Williams was just 17. Now she’s married and a mother; her daughter, Olympia, turned 5 on Thursday.
But even with 23,859 of her closest friends cheering raucously again on Friday, Williams faltered against Tomljanovic, a 29-year-old Australian who is ranked 46th.
Williams gave away leads in each set, including the last, in which she was up 1-0 before dropping the final six games.
Tomljanovic is unabashedly a fan of Williams, having growing up watching her play on TV.
“I’m feeling really sorry, just because I love Serena just as much as you guys do. And what she’s done for me, for the sport of tennis, is incredible,” said Tomljanovic, who has never been past the quarterfinals at any major. “This is a surreal moment for me.”
Then, drawing laughs, Tomljanovic added: “I just thought she would beat me. … She’s Serena. That’s just who she is: She’s the greatest of all time. Period.”
This performance was not perfect.
At one point in the second set, Williams’ feet got tangled and she fell to the court, dropping her racket. She finished with 51 unforced errors, 21 more than Tomljanovic.
Williams let a 5-3 lead vanish in the first set. She did something similar in the second, giving away edges of 4-0 and 5-2, and requiring five set points to finally put that one in her pocket. From 4-all in the tiebreaker, meaning Williams was three points from defeat, she pounded a 117 mph ace, hit a forehand winner to cap a 20-stroke exchange, then watched Tomljanovic push a forehand long.
Momentum appeared to be on Williams’ side. But she could not pull off the sort of never-admit-defeat triumph she did so often over the years.
“Oh, my God, thank you so much. You guys were amazing today. I tried,” Williams told the audience, hands on her hips, before mentioning, among others, her parents and her older sister, Venus, a seven-time major champion.
“I wouldn’t be Serena if there wasn’t Venus. So thank you, Venus,” she said. “She’s the only reason that Serena Williams ever existed.”
Williams entered the night having won 19 times in a row in the U.S. Open’s third round of singles competition, including reaching at least the semifinals in her most recent 11 appearances in New York.
Talk about a full-circle moment: The only other third-round loss she’s ever had at Flushing Meadows (she is 42-0 in the first and second rounds) came all the way back in 1998, the year Williams made her tournament debut at age 16. She would win her first major trophy 12 months later at the U.S. Open.
Story by Howard Fendrich, AP Tennis Writer