It took all the powers of concentration for Ajla Tomljanovic to bring an end to Serena Williams’ stellar career that has spanned decades, although the American 23-times Grand Slam champion put up a tremendous fight, and had chances to win through to the Last 16 in the 3 hour 5 minute duel, which she eventually lost 7-5 6-7(4) 6-1 in front of an electric New York crowd.
I always did love Australia. But you know what? I think I’ve come a long way since last year at Wimbledon, just not sure if that was my last moment or not and making it a different moment is much better. It takes a lot of work to get here. Clearly I'm still capable, but it takes a lot more like that. I'm ready to be a mom, and explore a different version of Serena. Serena Williams
Tomljanovic managed what Danka Kovinic and Anett Kontaveit could not – to blot out the partisan crowd, who roared at every success Williams produced, while the Australian’s credits were met with silence.
Going into the match, the Croatian-born Australian was fully aware the whole stadium would be against her and said she would borrow a trick from Novak Djokovic’s book, who chose to hear the chants against him as being for him.
“I remember Novak saying, one time when they asked him a lot about this, when the crowd was against him, he just pretends it’s for him,” Tomljanovic told Eurosport ahead of her encounter with Williams. “When they chant, I don’t know, Rafa, Roger, whoever, he hears Novak, Novak.
“I kind of liked that response. I might use that on Friday night.”
Nearly 30,000 people in the stands stood behind Williams, and Kontaveit had admitted later that it wasn’t easy playing in those conditions.
Once again the higher-ranked player, controversially, was introduced first and made to sit court-side enduring a Serena-fan fest video on the big screens of Arthur Ashe Stadium, before Williams herself appeared to great fanfare, resplendent in her diamond-studded black Nike outfit with train.
She breezed in with Tomljanovic already long out on the court, having arrived first after touching a bronze plaque at the players’ entrance inscribed with Billie Jean King’s famous ‘Pressure is a privilege’ quote.
Williams, who turns 41 this month, recently announced that she is ready to start ‘evolving away from tennis’ and looking to ‘grow her family’, expressing her distaste for the word ‘retirement’ while she remained purposely vague about whether this appearance at Flushing Meadows would be her final tournament, or not.
New York has been primed ever since, with record crowds attending her every match, played under the lights of Ashe, and Friday’s preamble was no different.
Tomljanovic kept her earbuds firmly in her ears, ignoring all the razzmatazz as she prepared herself mentally for the biggest match of her life.
Williams remains one title short of the 24 Grand Slam record held by Margaret Court, and had not won a US Open championship since 2014, her 3rd in a row, but her 367 Major match wins are the most by a female player in the open era.
This last match was played in front of sister Venus and Williams’s family, as well as musician Seal, NFL player Russell Wilson and his wife, singer Ciara, while her husband, Alexis Ohanian, was in the stands wearing a t-shirt with a photo of their daughter, Olympia, on the front, who was absent despite watching her mother’s 1st and 2nd-round matches.
The American looked the more tense and showed it in the first game, with Tomljanovic not looking fazed when she broke her opponent’s serve, but Williams settled quickly in the next game as the Australian failed to consolidate, going a break ahead for 5-3 and serving for the opening set.
Then a poor game appeared at the worst possible time for Williams, and unforced errors contributed to Tomljanovic breaking back for 5-4 as did, almost as crucially, a net cord trickling back to Williams’ side of the court at 30-30.
Growing in confidence, Tomljanovic hit clean winners off both wings, either side of a double-fault from Williams, to break again for 6-5 and leave her serving for the opener.
She raced into a 40-0 lead and sealed the set at the 3rd chance with an inch-perfect forehand winner.
Upset with herself for letting the first set slip away by playing too safe, the 40-year old from Compton, California had no intention of accepting the sting of defeat meekly and, if this was really was to be the end, then she was going to go out swinging.
“In my career I’ve never given up, and in matches I don’t give up,” Williams said later. “And I definitely wasn’t giving up tonight.”
She struck back in the second, breaking at the start and bounding out to a 4-0 lead before her 29-year old opponent mounted a ferocious comeback.
Roared on by a packed house, the American held multiple set points in an energy-sapping 15-minute 8th game, but could not find a big shot to put it away, and when she had the chance to serve for the second set, Tomljanovic clawed her way back with a break of her own, before levelling it at 5-5.
The set eventually went to a tiebreak, which Williams held her nerve to take and force a decisive third set.
Although Williams secured an early break in the decider, she was then broken 3 times in a row by Tomljanovic, who grasped a commanding lead and muted the stunned crowd.
Unwilling to go quietly, Williams staved off 5 match points to prolong proceedings, but Tomljanovic held firm to the last and brought her illustrious career to an end on her 6th when the American found the net.
Williams, who played her first professional tennis match in 1995 at the age of 14, walked calmly to the net after the game, waving to all sides of the stadium while Tina Turner’s hit ‘Simply The Best’ played over the loudspeakers.
Former first lady Michelle Obama led tributes to the tennis legend, tweeting: “Congrats on an amazing career, @SerenaWilliams! How lucky were we to be able to watch a young girl from Compton grow up to become one of the greatest athletes of all time. I’m proud of you, my friend–and I can’t wait to see the lives you continue to transform with your talents.”
Inside the stadium, a tearful Serena spoke ahead of her vanquisher saying: “It’s been a fun ride!”
If this was, indeed, the last hurrah, she took her fans on a thrill-a-minute throwback ride at the site of a half-dozen of her 23 Grand Slam championships, the first of which came in 1999 in New York, when Williams was just 17.
She faltered against Tomljanovic, who is ranked 46, giving away leads in each set, including the last, in which she was up 1-0 before dropping the final 6 games.
Breaking down in tears during her on court interview, she paid tribute to her family, most notably her parents and her sister Venus.
““Oh my God, thank you so much, I tried but she played a bit better,” she said. “Thank you daddy, I know you’re watching. Thanks mum. … I’m really grateful for them. [Thanks to] everyone that’s been on my side [for] decades, literally decades.
“It all started with my parents [mother Oracine Price and father Richard Williams] and they deserve everything.
“These are happy tears, I guess,” she continued. “I wouldn’t be Serena if there wasn’t Venus, so thank you Venus. She’s the only reason Serena Williams ever existed.
“It’s been a fun ride and the most incredible journey I’ve ever been on.”
Still, Williams refused to fully commit to her retirement plans when asked whether there could be another chapter, she added: “I mean I’m literally playing my way into this and getting better.
“I should have started sooner this year!
“I don’t think so, but you never know. I don’t know.”
Tomljanovic also was emotional when asked what it meant to have her name etched in history as the last woman to ever play Williams in a professional match.
“I am feeling really sorry as I love Serena just as much as you do, the Australian told the crowd, who finally responded with some warmth. “This is a surreal moment for me.
“What she’s done for me, for the sport is just incredible,” the Australian added. “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 thought she would beat me. The pressure wasn’t on me.
“She’s Serena. She’s the greatest of all time. Period.”
The score said Tomljanovic won, 7-5 6-7(4) 6-1, and she will move on to the Round of 16 where she will play Russian Liudmilla Samsonova, while Williams simply moves on.
“I always did love Australia,” she said, smirking as she referred to the next major, in January. “But you know what? I think I’ve come a long way since last year at Wimbledon, just not sure if that was my last moment or not and making it a different moment is much better.
“It takes a lot of work to get here. Clearly I’m still capable, but it takes a lot more like that. I’m ready to be a mom, and explore a different version of Serena.
“I just honestly am so grateful that I had this moment,” she added. “And that I’m Serena.”
The version on show on Friday did tennis proud because, until the very last point, her sheer force made it an epic tribute to the champion she was, and always will be.
“I was very nervous, and a little bit — I don’t like to say it — but a little fearful of things going really badly out there because I’m playing Serena,” Tomljanovic admitted. “I have faith in myself, but at the same time, I have a little doubt.
“I know how much I hate playing players that don’t give up anything so freely. You have to work for every point.”
Even at 5-1 in the third set, Tomljanovic did not allow herself to think that she was about to win as she had seen Williams escape the impossible too many times and knew that she plays her best tennis when she is backed into a corner.
“During the match I was so eager to win,” Tomljanovic said. “When it ended, it almost didn’t feel right.”
Serena Jameka Williams’ accomplishments rank with the best of her sport. In a professional career that spanned 27 years, she:
- Won 73 WTA-level titles, 5th all time, and 1st among active players.
- Produced 8 different reigns at No 1, from 2002-17, for a total of 319 weeks, third all time.
- Is the most recent player to simultaneously hold all 4 Grand Slam crowns — twice, from 2002-03 and 2014-15.
- Finished with an overall match record of 858-156 (.846). She’s also 367-56 in Grand Slams and 108-15 at the US Open.
- Won more than $94 million in prize money, more than any woman in tennis history.
- Won 4 Olympic gold medals, 3 in doubles.
Her sustained longevity is even more astonishing because of the extended absences she has endured.
In 2003, Williams underwent serious knee surgery and missed 8 months while 7 years later she suffered a hematoma and a pulmonary embolism, and was out for nearly one year.
In 2017, after giving birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian, she faced serious, life-threatening issues, was bedridden for 6 weeks, and ultimately missed another entire year.
A hamstring injury sustained at Wimbledon in 2021 took her out for the rest of the year.
In the end, Williams took home 7 Australian Open and Wimbledon titles, along with 6 US Open and 3 French Opens. Only Navratilova had more Slam titles at a single event, with 9 Wimbledon crowns.