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Serena Williams loses at U.S. Open in what may be her final match

Serena Williams thanks the fans after losing to Ajla Tomljanovic at the U.S. Open. (Al Bello/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — Serena Williams said what is in all likelihood her goodbye to tennis Friday night at Arthur Ashe Stadium, 23 years and 22 Grand Slam titles after winning her first here at the U.S. Open.

She lost to Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic in a tense, 7-5, 6-7 (7-4), 6-1 match full of the signature power and fight she has employed to rule women’s tennis for the past two decades. In the final game, she staved off six match points and took Tomljanovic to deuce eight times, just two words running through her mind even as the inevitable became clear: “More spin.”

It was the most thrilling night of a week-long run that Williams has called a bonus to her nearly 27-year career.

She announced in Vogue last month that she intends to “evolve” away from tennis and arrived at Flushing Meadows having played just four matches in the past 14 months, winning only one.

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But Williams, who turns 41 this month, exceeded expectations in every fashion. She was feted throughout the week with on-court ceremonies and lavish tribute videos played before every match; celebrities such as Tiger Woods, Anna Wintour, Spike Lee, Russell Wilson and Gladys Knight turned up to watch.

She said she wanted her play to live up to all the pomp and circumstance; on Friday, it did.

After the final game, Williams held her hand over her heart and mouthed “I love you” to the thundering spectators on their feet in Arthur Ashe Stadium, the site of six of her Grand Slam titles. Her signature twirl and wave followed some time after as she choked back tears, thanked the crowd, then paid tribute to her family — her mother, Oracene; sisters Venus Williams and Isha Price; and husband, Alexis Ohanian, all standing in her player box.

“Thank you, Daddy. I know you’re watching,” Williams said, addressing her father, Richard, before tears began falling in earnest. “Thanks, Mom. I just thank everyone that’s here, that’s been on my side so many years — decades, oh, my gosh, literally decades. But it all started with my parents, and they deserve everything. … 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 the most incredible ride and journey I’ve ever been on in my life. I’m just so grateful to every single person that’s ever said ‘Go Serena’ in their life because, yeah, you got me here.”

Should Williams never play another tournament, she walks away with 73 career titles — the fifth most in the women’s game in the Open era — a record $94 million in career earnings and the Open era record of 23 major trophies, one shy of Margaret Court’s mark.

Court collected hers at a time when fewer players traveled to the Australian Open and she, a native Aussie, dominated the tournament to win 11 times. Yet the No. 24 held strong motivating powers for Williams, who had been chasing the record throughout the final years of her career.

She came up one short. To the throngs of supporters roaring her name Wednesday, it did not matter.

Williams and her sister Venus opened the floodgates for diversity in tennis, inspiring a swath of Black players to take up the sport — and even more to start tuning in at home.

Viewers regardless of age, race or gender appreciate the longevity of her dominance and, in the final stretches of her career, what she represented to mothers. Williams won the 2017 Australian Open, the final title of her career, while pregnant with her daughter, Olympia.

Highlights from Serena Williams’s U.S. Open loss to Ajla Tomljanovic

On court, no player revolutionized women’s tennis more. She made power matter in a game of angles and finesse, introducing to it big muscles and the shot that will be her on-court legacy: her serve. Its unmatched combination of speed, ferocity and accuracy have made some call it the greatest shot women’s tennis has ever seen.

She leaves tennis less relevant in her absence, the first to shelve her racket of a cosmic group of players who transcended the game. Venus, 42, has not said a word about retirement. Roger Federer, 41, is missing his third straight U.S. Open as he recovers from knee surgery. Rafael Nadal, 36, and Novak Djokovic, 35, remain active but with much less career in front of them than behind.

“I feel like I really brought something — and bring something — to tennis,” Williams said, when asked what she would like to be remembered for. “The different looks, the fist pumps, the just crazy intensity. I think that, obviously, the passion is a really good word.

“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.”

It seemed for a while Friday that Williams might not be ready for the moment to end. She leaped to a 5-3 lead early but Tomljanovic, a 29-year-old Aussie with a steel-lined gut, was not cowed by the roar of the crowd nor the deficit.

She remained in motion throughout the night, following her forward momentum after a winner to the chair or doing heel-kicks between points, staying physically loose but mentally locked.

She blazed through four straight games to take the first set.

Williams held to win the first game of the second. But it required an effort that originated deep in the belly, including one lunge for a Tomljanovic shot hit at such an acute angle it left Williams sprawled on the court.

As it had hundreds of times before in hundreds of previous matches, her opponent’s nerve lit Williams’s pilot light. She began the second set pummeling the ball and going for bigger winners, rattling off four straight games of her own with the best, most precise play she has exhibited all tournament. She won the second-set tiebreaker on her fifth set point.

Saturday, Williams said, will be devoted to spending time with her family and celebrating with karaoke. She wrote in her Vogue article that she is retiring partly to expand her family, partly to spend more time with the 5-year-old daughter she already has.

“Yeah, it’s been really hard on her, my career. So it will be, you know, nice just to do that and spend some time with her, do things that I never really have done or had an opportunity to do,” Williams said. “I have such a bright future ahead of me.”