Serena Williams ends her career with a third-round loss, but her tennis legacy will only grow

Ajla Tomljanovic defeated Serena Williams in a thrilling three-hour battle Friday night at the US Open. (Al Bello/Getty Images)

Serena Williams, the icon, the legend, the GOAT, lost in the third round of the US Open, marking her final match as a professional tennis player.

Australian Ajla Tomljanovic defeated Williams on Friday night in a thrilling battle, 7-5, 6-7 (4-7), 6-1, at Arthur Ashe Stadium. The three-hour match featured a wild, sustained comeback that ended in a heated tiebreak in the second set before Tomljanovic finally closed out the match in the third – ending what will go down as one of the best and most watched matches of all tournament.

“I’m really sorry, just because I love Serena just as much as you do and what she did for me, because tennis is amazing,” Tomljanovic said after his victory. “I never thought I’d get the chance to play her in her last game when I remember watching her as a kid in all those finals. It’s a surreal moment for me.”

Williams led 4-0 in the second set as well and looked set to force a third. Yet Tomljanovic, who won four straight games to close out the first set, fought her way to force a tiebreak. She nearly took Williams there as well, but Williams was able to win 7-4 to extend the match.

Although Williams jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the final set, she dropped the next two quickly and looked exhausted after more than two and a half hours on court. Tomljanovic rolled from there, even with seemingly the entire stadium against her, to take the final set and advance to the fourth round while also ending Williams’ career.

Williams was emotional as she walked off the court — she cried “happy tears, I guess” in her last interview — and thanked her parents and sister Venus.

“Thank you so much, you guys were amazing today. I wish I could play a little better. Thank you dad, I know you’re watching. Thanks mom,” Williams said on the court. “I just thank everyone who is here who has been by my side for so many years, decades. Oh my god, literally decades. But it all started with my parents and they deserve everything, so I’m really grateful to them.

“Those are happy tears, I guess! I don’t know. And I wouldn’t be Serena if it wasn’t for Venus, so thank you Venus.”

Williams is more than this loss

A loss like this isn’t the way Williams wanted to end her career, but it’s not what she’ll be remembered for. Her career is too incredible, too important, for any one moment to define her.

Williams first picked up a tennis racket at age three (though she says they were 18 months old), and in a way, her fate was sealed from there. As the younger sister of fellow tennis legend Venus Williams, she spent time watching Venus play, succeed and fail as she waited in the shadows, learning what she could from what she saw.

Venus was the first to step into the spotlight, but Serena followed. She officially arrived in 1999, winning the US Open, then in 2002-2003 achieved what is now called the Serena Slam: holding all four Grand Slam titles simultaneously in two calendar years. She won the 2002 French Open, the 2002 Wimbledon title, the 2002 US Open and the 2003 Australian Open. In each of these finals, she had to defeat her own sister, for to win the trophy. Williams would win the Serena Slam again in 2014-2015.

She never achieved a calendar Slam (winning all four majors in the same year), but became the first tennis player in history to achieve a career Golden Slam (winning all four majors and the Olympic gold medal) in both singles and doubles . Williams is so dominant in singles that her doubles career, playing alongside Venus, is often forgotten. As a doubles team, they remain unbeaten in Grand Slam finals, winning 14 and never losing a single one.

In total, Williams spent 319 weeks as the WTA World No. 1 player. Only Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova spent more time on top than her. Although she often chose to focus on Grand Slam tournaments rather than playing extensively on the WTA tour, she still won 73 singles titles, which ranks her fifth all-time in women’s tennis history. She won 23 Grand Slam titles, the most in the Open Era and one behind Margaret Court for the all-time record.

Breaking down borders has drawn support and criticism

While Williams was good, there was more to her than that, making headlines and turning heads in a way that transcended tennis and athletics in general. She was bold and daring, not caring about the norms for female tennis players. She wore outfits no one had seen on a tennis court, bright colors, suits and tutus. She wore her hair the way she wanted, braided, beaded, straight and natural. She showed off her body with pride, refusing to hide the muscles she worked so hard for. She became a fashion icon, appearing alone on the cover of Vogue, designing multiple clothing lines, and becoming a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model.

At the same time, there were few athletes who inspired such passion from the public – both for and against it. She was criticized for her hairstyle and tennis outfit. She was criticized for being too muscular and too loud when she performed. She was criticized for bringing race into tennis. Williams wasn’t a perfect player and she isn’t a perfect person, so some criticism was deserved — like when she was called out for being too selfish and combative after her lengthy on-court argument with the chair umpire at the US Women’s Open in the 2018 final against Naomi Osaka, which she lost.

But even this example has a racist flavor. After that match, an Australian newspaper printed a racist caricature of Williams, using racial stereotypes to portray her as an overly muscular animal creature with a monkey face and huge lips, while Osaka was drawn as a blonde white woman. Some of Williams’ criticism was fair and deserved, but some of it, both inside and outside of tennis, stemmed from her being a black woman who dared to challenge the norms of white women in the sport.

Williams’ legacy is immense

Williams has been so good for so long that in the last few years she has been competing against players who started playing tennis because they saw her do it. They are Serena’s generation, playing in their own way and style, but carrying a bit of Williams with them every time they play.

That’s why her legacy will only grow. Serena’s generation is not static because her story in the sport will continue to influence young girls and women around the world, whether they play tennis or not. And the women inspired by Williams will inspire their own generation, carrying her into the future long after she has stopped competing. Venus and Serena walked so players like Coco Gauff could run. And Gauff runs so that others in the future can fly.

Williams has been dominant for so long, and in an individual sport it’s as much about mental preparation and performance as it is physical. The only real comparison you can make is Tiger Woods, who also played a solo sport. Both were extremely successful in a way that transcended sports. Both challenged white norms and the largely white history of their sports. Both fell short of a historic mark in their sports: Williams will retire just one major short of equaling Margaret Court’s 24 Grand Slam titles, and Woods remains three majors behind Jack Nicklaus for the all-time record times.

But if the miss doesn’t define Woods’ legacy, it certainly doesn’t define Williams’. Whether you look at her career as a whole or on a micro level, she has done things that no one predicted or expected. For example, even after more than a decade of excellence, no one could have imagined that she would win (or could win) the 2017 Australian Open while eight weeks pregnant. She then missed an entire year of competition after an emergency C-section caused her to develop a pulmonary embolism that left her bedridden for six weeks. Not many expected her to come out of it with the same strength and gusto she had before, but she did anyway, returning in 2018 to reach the finals of four Grand Slams and the semi-finals of another two.

Now that she’s done (almost) everything she ever wanted to do in tennis, she’s moving on. To focus on his venture capital company, grow his family, and do whatever the hell he wants. She deserved it.

There is no one like Serena Williams and there will never be another like her again. She didn’t just change the sport of tennis; she changed the world.

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