All of the celebrity tributes and voice-over videos were artificialities, junk, compared to the audience’s acclaim for Serena Williams, the pure roaring waterfalls of applause that thundered down in Arthur Ashe Stadium. It came in full-throated cascades, for the greatest women’s tennis player in history, for the bravura thrust of her game and for the breadth of her dominion now complete. Beneath the shouting and stomping were so many sentiments they could hardly be expressed as the 40-year-old made one last twirl and wave before exiting.
It had been a long, sometimes contentious, multi-hurdled journey from chippy kid to all-time champion who radicalized one of the Whitest and fustiest of sports with her presence. She won her first U.S. Open title at age 17 in 1999, the beginning of a modern record 23 Grand Slam titles. She found the very bottom of her competitive heart and guts Friday night, when just three weeks shy of her 41st birthday she battled with trademark fierceness for three sets and killed five match points with an array of huge if wearying cuts at the tennis ball before losing to Ajla Tomljanovic, 7-5, 6-7 (7-4), 6-1, in what was almost certainly her last major championship match. Just two days earlier, she had upset the No. 2 player in the world, Anett Kontaveit.
“I tried,” she said simply, afterward.
Nobody in the history of the game, perhaps any game, has ever tried harder or for longer.
“I mean, there’s so many things to be remembered by. Like the fight. I’m such a fighter. I don’t know,” she said. “I feel like I really brought something — and bring something — to tennis. The different looks, the fist pumps, the just crazy intensity. Obviously the passion I think is a really good word.”
It was such a complicated career over the span of 27 years that it was hard to encompass. “Her legacy is really wide, to the point where you can’t even describe it in words,” said Naomi Osaka, her rival and friend.
Her impact could be partly illustrated by two bracketing images. On Aug. 9, Williams announced her impending retirement or “evolution” as she called it in a less painful term, with a majestic pose on the cover of the September issue of Vogue magazine in a queenly blue gown with train. Twenty-four Septembers ago, in Williams’s breakthrough year of 1999, the Vogue “cover girl” that month was Gwyneth Paltrow, a typically gossamer-thin actress. Williams would redefine female beauty with a new template of strength while defying the traditional strictures of tennis, prying it open to more diverse audiences. She has appeared in Vogue four times — the first Black female athlete to appear in its pages. It was no trivial accomplishment that a strong Black female athlete made the glossy magazine into her house organ. Not to mention a showcase for the accessories she so delightedly draped over her muscle, down to the crusts of diamonds on her boxer’s sneakers.
“I feel grateful that I can have that impact,” she said earlier in the tournament. “I never thought I would have that impact, ever. I was just a girl trying to play tennis in a time where I could develop this impact and be a voice. It was just so authentic because I do what I do. And I just do it authentically [as] me. I think people could really relate to that.”
Williams’s career on and off the court was an exploration in power — the massive windup of her strokes was accompanied by control, a deep precision that allowed her to brush the lines. Through the ebbs and flows of the victories, she was unapologetic about her towering temper and hard-charging game and voice and her origins on the hardscrabble, cracked and strafed public courts of Compton, Calif. “I wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t go through — and get through — what I got through,” she said at Wimbledon earlier this summer. “I love who I am. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Anything she did “wrong” or out of step with tennis tradition was inevitably magnified, criticized or scrutinized. But instead of being timid about that, she went right at it and made huge statements, about body image, ideas of what tennis clothing could look like and how loudly a woman could compete. Typically, the tennis world had imposed subtle pressures on women to keep their ambitions and their voices within a certain range, to suppress. It was Williams who imposed her own pressure on tennis with the potency of her competitive personality. She took all of the advantages from the tennis world and none of the disadvantages. She avoided burnout, disenchantment, the injuries from overplaying that plague most young champions.
And finally, she became not only the most enduring champion of the modern era but also its most revered. Over the past week she was lionized by Oprah and Queen Latifah, but she was urged on by a crowd noise of a volume and quality of affection that had been heard for no other champion. Not even the longest tennis observers had heard such ovations. “This is not a tennis noise,” commentator Mary Carillo remarked.
Williams could feel the receptions in her very chest, she said. Her first-round opponent, Danka Kovinic, said, “In some moments during the match, I couldn’t hear my shots.”
As Williams fought against Tomljanovic, the crescendo rose and rose. In one game in the second set, she forced her opponent to fight for 15 full minutes just to hold her serve. When Williams took that set, she issued a guttural scream of her own, so intense it bent her double.
But in a siege of a final game — one that lasted 22 points — as the match had entered its third hour, she alternated her walloping strokes and surges to the net, shots that landed like uppercuts, with arm-weary errors.
The final shot was a tired forehand that clipped the white net tape. And suddenly it was done.
Afterward, in an on-court interview, as she thanked her family and friends, she wept in a swirl of conflicting emotions. “These are happy tears — I guess,” she said. “I don’t know.”
And then she thanked that crowd, which had finally learned to appreciate her. “I’m just grateful to everyone who said ‘Go Serena’ in their life because you got me here,” she said.