Column: End of an era as tennis legend Serena Williams bows out with loss at U.S. Open

Serena Williams acknowledges the crowd after losing to Ajla Tomljanovic in the third round of the U.S. Open.
Serena Williams acknowledges the crowd Friday night after losing 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-1 to Ajla Tomljanovic in the third round of the U.S. Open. It likely was the final match of Williams’ storied career.
(John Minchillo / Associated Press)

Serena Williams’ trailblazing tennis career ended with one last blast of fire on a cool summer night at the U.S. Open, the scene of her first major triumph in 1999.

Williams, who recently said she’s ready to move away from competition to spend more time with her family and business ventures, fought back several times against Australian Ajla Tomljanovic and won a dramatic tiebreak in the second set, but Tomljanovic prevailed 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-1 in their third-round match Friday night. With tears in her eyes and the roars of an adoring crowd in her ears, Williams walked off the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium one last time to continue her evolution, the term she prefers to retirement.

Speaking to ESPN commentator Mary Joe Fernandez on the court moments after the match, Williams said “you never know” if she might reconsider her plan to stop playing. Asked later if that meant she had left herself some wiggle room to come back, she joked, “I always did love Australia,” where she won seven of her 23 Grand Slam singles titles.


Serena and Venus Williams, playing in possibly their final professional doubles match together, lost to Lucie Hradecka and Linda Noskova at the U.S. Open.

Sept. 1, 2022

But she soon became more introspective — and realistic. She justifiably took pride in being able to dramatically raise the level of her game after being off the court for nearly a year because of injuries. She enjoyed some brilliant moments in winning her first two matches here, against Danka Kovinic and No. 2 seed Anett Kontaveit, and again against Tomljanovic on Friday. Her downfall was squandering four set points in the eighth game of the second set, which would have allowed her to save energy for the third set.

But for long stretches her serve was formidable. She rediscovered the magical zone that athletes seek, where they can block out the world and summon their best skills at will. She had the fire that was the foundation of her longtime dominance as much as her power and physicality.

Serena Williams reacts after losing to Ajla Tomljanovic in the third round of the U.S. Open.
Serena Williams reacts after losing to Ajla Tomljanovic in the third round of the U.S. Open. The match lasted more than three hours.
(John Minchillo / Associated Press)

But with her 41st birthday coming on Sept. 26 and a parade of younger opponents coming after her, she knew her days at the top of the rankings are over. She committed 51 unforced errors on Friday against Tomljanovic, who’s ranked 46th in the world, and didn’t have enough left to bounce back again in the third set.

Williams has accepted that it’s time for her to conquer other worlds, to fulfill her wish to have a second child, to not have to say she must practice when her daughter, Olympia, who turned 5 on Friday, wants to play dressup or bake cookies.

“It takes a lot of work to get here. Clearly I’m still capable. It takes a lot more than that,” she said. “I’m ready to, like, be a mom, explore a different version of Serena.


“Technically, in the world I’m still super young, so I want to have a little bit of a life while I’m still walking.”

Tennis and women’s sports will lose one of their most influential and recognizable stars.

Following the brave lead of older sister Venus, Serena inspired kids to believe there’s a place in tennis for anyone, no matter what they look like or where they come from. The Williams sisters made the scruffy public courts of Compton their launching pad for careers that might never be replicated: Venus won seven Grand Slam singles titles and Serena 23, and they teamed up for 14 Grand Slam doubles titles. Serena also won two mixed doubles Slam titles. They teamed up at the U.S. Open one last time, losing in the first round on Thursday to a younger Czech duo but winning back the joy of being together again.

Ajla Tomljanovic celebrates during a third-round match at the U.S. Open.
Ajla Tomljanovic celebrates during her win. “She embodies that no dream is too big,” Tomljanovic said of Serena Williams after the match. “I’m really feeling sorry because I love Serena as much as you guys do.”
(Charles Krupa / Associated Press)

“She embodies that no dream is too big,” a gracious Tomljanovic said to the crowd after the match. “I’m really feeling sorry because I love Serena as much as you guys do.

“She’s the greatest of all time, period.”

Williams’ loss triggered a flood of tributes from fellow athletes on social media. Runner Allyson Felix of Los Angeles, the most decorated American track and field athlete with 11 Olympic medals, said on Twitter, “I’m so grateful for @serenawilliams. What she has given this sport and us will never be lost on me.”

Soccer player Alex Morgan praised Williams’ spirit. “Serena fighting until the last point, always. You’ve given so much to tennis and so much to women’s sports,” she said. “Thank you, @serenawilliams.”

Eighteen-year-old Floridian Coco Gauff, who reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open for the first time with an impressive 6-2, 6-3 victory over Madison Keys on Friday, posted a photo of a poster of Williams that had a place of honor on Gauff’s bedroom wall.

Complete coverage from the Los Angeles Times of what could be the final Grand Slam of Serena Williams’ prolific career at the 2022 U.S. Open.

Sept. 1, 2022

“Serena, THANK YOU. It is because of you I believe in this dream,” Gauff said. “The impact you’ve had on me goes beyond any words that can be put together, and for that I say thank you, thank you, thank you, GOAT!”

Williams leaves debates about the greatest of all time to those who like to argue about such things. She wants to be remembered in other ways.

Serena Williams returns a shot to Ajla Tomljanovic during the third round of the U.S. Open.
Serena Williams hits a return during her three-set loss. “I feel like I really brought something, and bring something, to tennis,” she said. “The different looks, the fist pumps, the just crazy intensity.”
(John Minchillo / Associated Press)

“Like the fight. I’m such a fighter,” she said. “I feel like I really brought something, and bring something, to tennis. The different looks, the fist pumps, the just crazy intensity. I think that obviously the passion, I think, is a really good word.

“Yeah, yeah, just continuing through ups and downs. I could go on and on. But I just honestly am so grateful that I had this moment and that I’m Serena, so...”

She left the sentence unfinished. She didn’t need to say more. She made a difference and made the sport better for her presence, and not many athletes can say that.