NEW YORK -- Like the champion she is, Serena Williams slugged away five match points in the final game. In the end, it wasn't enough.
Williams, perhaps the most decorated player in history, ended her tennis career Friday night at the 2022 US Open.
Ajla Tomljanovic won a third-round match 7-5, 6-7(4), 6-1 in front of a packed, passionate crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium, the familiar venue where Williams won a record-equaling six US Open titles.
Williams, 40, who won an Open Era record 23 Grand Slam titles, will leave the game with some of the loftiest numbers of all time.
Strictly in terms of Hologic WTA Tour titles, Martina Navratilova leads the all-time list with 167, followed by Chris Evert (157), Stefanie Graf (107), Court (92) and Williams, with 73.
Beyond the bare numbers, though, Williams is credited with transforming the women’s game.
“I don’t think I’ve even taken a moment to realize any impact,” she said in New York, responding to tributes from Coco Gauff, Naomi Osaka and many others. “I understand it, but I don’t really meditate or think about it. I’ll have plenty of time soon to do all that.
“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 me.”
Today’s tennis is unquestionably deeper than it’s ever been, and players don’t play as many matches as they used to. And yet, despite several extended sabbaticals, 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, fifth all time, and first among active players.
- Produced eight 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 four 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 four Olympic gold medals, three in doubles.
“[There’s] no happiness in this topic for me,” Serena wrote in a first-person essay for Vogue magazine. “The best word to describe what I’m up to is evolution. I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me.”
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Chris Evert, an 18-time Grand Slam singles champion herself, summed up Williams’ extraordinary career.
“For me,” Evert said after Williams withdrew from the 2021 Wimbledon event, “her legacy is already sealed.
“Even though she did not catch Margaret Court’s [all-time] record [of 24], it doesn’t matter. She is always the greatest of all.”
Here’s some further context:
From the time Williams won her first major, the US Open, in September 1999, to the last, the Australian Open in January 2017, Serena won 23 major titles and Venus seven. The rest of the tennis universe -- 18 different players -- managed to win a total of 40.
And that doesn’t include the Williamses’ additional 13 major finals appearances.
Together, they won 14 Grand Slam doubles titles. Incredibly, they never lost a final. Additionally, they each won three Olympic gold medals and a bronze.
They met 31 times, with Serena holding a 19-12 advantage. Remarkably, nine of those were Grand Slam finals, including a stretch of four of five from the 2001 US Open to the 2002 US Open.
While so much attention was focused on Serena’s challenge to equal Court’s record, consider the quality of her recent near-misses.
Williams was 35 years and 124 days old when she won that 2017 Australian Open, becoming the oldest women’s winner in a major. She then proceeded to reach four Grand Slam finals after that. At Wimbledon in 2019, Serena, at 37 and 291 days, was the oldest female major finalist, surpassing Navratilova’s record.
She was nearly 38 years old when she lost the US Open final later that year to Bianca Andreescu. Roger Federer, whose stellar career tracks similarly to Williams', reached only one major final after the age of 36, losing the 2019 Wimbledon final to Novak Djokovic.
Against Tomljanovic, Williams was bidding to become the oldest women to reach the fourth round of a Grand Slam in the Open Era.
Her sustained longevity is even more astonishing because of the extended absences she’s endured.
In 2003, Williams underwent serious knee surgery and missed eight months. Seven 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 six 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 seven Australian Open and Wimbledon titles, along with six US Open and three French Opens. Only Navratilova (nine Wimbledon crowns) had more Slam titles at a single event.
It’s also worth remembering that it was Serena, the younger sister, who provided the blueprint for the success of her older sister, winning the 1999 US Open -- at the age of 17. Serena was the first African American to win a major singles title since Althea Gibson in 1958.
One year earlier, she provided another example for Venus.
“This was like in ‘98 in Sydney,” Venus said that fortnight. “Serena was playing a top player, was down 6-1, 5-0. She was fighting like there was no tomorrow, like it was her last day on earth. After that, I reconsidered. I wasn’t such a fighter.
“After that, I became a fighter, too. That’s what I took from her game.”
Never one to shy away drama, Williams gifted the sellout crowd with a memorable match before taking her final curtain. They thanked her with a prolonged standing ovation, which brought tears to her eyes.
At the end, after more than 3 hours, after Tomljanovic converted her sixth match point, Williams looked weary. She had served for both sets with a 5-3 lead and somehow they both eluded her.
When the final forehand found the net, she approached the net and shook hands with Tomljanovic. She waved to the four sides of the stadium and placed her hand over her heart.
“Thank you, daddy, I know you’re watching,” Williams said in her on-court interview. “Thanks mom.”
Her voice cracked and the tears came faster.
“I wouldn’t be Serena if it wasn’t for Venus,” she continued. “She’s the only reason Serena Williams ever existed.
“It’s been a fun ride.”