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Serena Williams’ legacy bigger than her tennis exploits

It is safe to say there has never been a third-round match like it at the U.S. Open. This was no preliminary. This was the main event.

And when it was over, when the drama-filled, high-quality contest ended the way just about nobody in the vicinity wanted it to, Serena Williams effectively bade goodbye to the sport over which she has cast such a giant shadow for more than two decades following a 7-5, 6-7 (4-7), 6-1 loss to her resolute opponent from Australia, Alja Tomljanovic.

Serena Williams will not disappear. She will simply occupy other areas of our sensibilities. She will remain a role model to those for whom she opened doors not only to tennis but to grander exploits. She will continue to make a difference, the same way she and older sister Venus have done since the turn of the century.

“I wouldn’t be Serena if there wasn’t Venus,” the younger sister said in an on-court interview immediately following the match. “She’s the only reason Serena Williams ever existed.”

The crowd, not quite as rowdy, raucous and intimidating as it had been through Serena’s three-set victory on Wednesday over second-seed Anett Kontaveit, rose and went into a full-throated roar before each of the six match points Williams faced in the final game Friday.

No one wanted to let her go.

Serena Williams waves to the crowd after her final match at the U.S. Open.
Serena Williams waves to the crowd after her final match at the U.S. Open.
Larry Marano

When, finally, her final shot wafted into the net, there was silence. It took a moment to process. With the handshake done (though she left the teeniest sliver of doubt whether she would play a meaningful event again), so was Serena Williams’ career.

Cue the soundtrack: Tina Turner’s “You’re Simply the Best.” Cue one final twirl.

“I have such a bright future ahead of me,” the 40-year-old Williams said later. “Technically in the world, I’m super young, so I want to have a little bit of a life while I’m still walking.”

The match was a heavyweight bout. Williams served for the first set at 5-3, then lost straight games. She was up 5-2 with four set points on Tomljanovic’s serve and was forced into a tiebreak. Williams broke her opponent in the first game of the third set and then was broken herself three times in the set.

Six times in the seventh game of the final set, she faced match point — career point. At no time, she said, did she think about it possibly being the last point of her career.

“I’ve been down before. I’ve been down 5-1 before and have come back, I think,” she said. “I don’t give up. I definitely didn’t give up tonight. That’s what I was thinking. Just keep fighting.”

Williams hadn’t played for a year, so it is not as if her absence from the tour will be a sudden shock. But there will be a huge void in celebrity. A huge void in reach to the casual fan. And there will certainly be a giant void to be filled across the second week of this tournament, which this week became a shrine to Serena and to her career.

Serena Williams hits a backhand during her third-round loss at the U.S. Open.
Serena Williams hits a backhand during her third-round loss at the U.S. Open.
Larry Marano

It was a career that she herself honored with elevated play that rocked the house that pioneers Althea Gibson, Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe had built brick by brick.

“I’ve come a long way since Wimbledon last year,” said Williams, referring to the 2021 tournament from which she was forced to withdraw with a torn hamstring seven games into her first-round match. “I just was not sure whether that was my last moment or not. Making it a different moment is much better.

“It takes a lot of work to get there. Clearly I’m still capable. It takes a lot more than that. I’m ready to be a mom and explore a different version of Serena.”

Serena isn’t an American icon simply because she was as good as anyone who has ever picked up a racquet. She is an icon because of what she meant and what she represented to so many outposts and to so many of our communities. She remains one. That tag does not come with an expiration date.

She hasn’t always been embraced at the Open. She won the Open title six times, but also behaved disgracefully in interactions with on-court officials enough times to allow critics to paint her with a brush not applied to other miscreants. But this week, there was full embrace and an outpouring of love and admiration that resounded through the grounds.

They liked her.

They really liked her.

“There were some really great moments this week,” she said. “It was really amazing and overwhelming. I’m so grateful for it.”

Now, Serena Williams moves on with her life, with her husband, Alexis Ohanian, and her 5-year-old daughter, Olympia. The best in her life is ahead.

The only thing past tense about her is her tennis career.

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