NEW YORK -- A year ago at the US Open, Serena Williams played her last match. In the last game, reaching back across an unprecedented career, she saved five match points before falling to Ajla Tomljanovic.
It was a fantastic final flourish for the 40-year-old, who won an Open Era record 23 Grand Slam titles.
“I’m a pretty good player -- this is what I do,” she had said after defeating World No.2 Anett Kontaveit in the second round then.
And Serena did it better at the US Open than anywhere else.
"We thought it was going to be her last tournament, but we didn’t know for sure," said four-time US Open singles champion Martina Navratilova. "Everybody was always looking over their shoulder to see where Serena was. It’s going to be a big hole there.
"It was such a happening, almost like a rock concert atmosphere when she was playing her matches. This year, there’s a lot of players who are happy she’s not in the draw.”
Serena won seven titles at both Wimbledon and the Australian Open, but the US Open was her signature event. Serena shares the Open Era record of six titles with Chris Evert and piled up her largest singles win total in a Grand Slam. She played New York 21 times.
Her record in majors:
US Open -- 108-15 (.878)
Australian Open -- 92-13 (.876)
Wimbledon -- 98-14 (.875)
Roland Garros -- 69-14 (.831)
That total of 108 victories is the all-time record -- seven more than Evert.
When this year’s US Open began, there was no Serena. Of course, in the span from 1998 to 2022, she missed four Opens (2003, 2010, 2017, 2021) for various reasons. But there was always the sense that she’d find her way back to Flushing. This time, though, it feels forever.
Of course, Serena's US Open legacy still casts a shadow. Coco Gauff's run to her first US Open semifinal made her the first American teenager to go that deep since Serena in 2001. In a banner tournament for American tennis, every milestone seems caveated by "since Serena."
As the Hologic WTA Tour celebrates its 50th anniversary, we celebrate Serena’s very special history in New York.
Serena made it to the third round in her 1998 debut at the age of 16. A year later, when many people were focused on his older sister Venus, she won the tournament.
Her draw was daunting, a gallery of Hall of Famers. Serena beat Kim Clijsters in the third round and Conchita Martinez in the fourth. Then it was Monica Seles, defending champion Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis in the 6-3, 7-6 (4) final. She was the first African-American woman to win the US Open since Althea Gibson in 1958.
“It’s really amazing for me to even have an opportunity to be compared to Althea Gibson,” Serena said. “She was a great player. It’s pretty exciting for me. I actually went out and won a Slam. That’s great.”
After three near-misses, Venus captured the title in New York in 2000 and 2001 -- beating Serena in that straight-sets final. When Venus returned to the championship match, sister Serena stood again on the other side of the court.
Venus was working on a 19-match winning streak -- and 20 straight at the US Open -- and the No.1 ranking was in play. But this time, Serena prevailed in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3.
She had already won the titles at the French Open and Wimbledon, so this was three in a row at the majors. She’d make it four at the 2003 Australian Open, giving her all four trophies simultaneously -- the Serena Slam.
Coming in, there wasn’t much to suggest Serena would be a factor. She was having an uninspired summer, which included a semifinal retirement in Stanford and a quarterfinal loss to eventual champion Elena Dementieva in Beijing.
The biggest obstacle on her road to the final? Venus, of course. They met in the quarterfinals and it couldn’t have been any closer. Serena escaped with a 7-6(6), 7-6(7) victory. The final against No.2-ranked Jelena Jankovic (6-4, 7-5) was almost anticlimactic.
Serena didn’t drop a set in seven matches and regained the No.1 ranking for the first time in five years.
Two weeks before her 31st birthday -- 13 years after the teenager from California became the fourth-youngest US Open champion -- Serena was the second-oldest. The 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 win over good friend (and constant nemesis) Victoria Azarenka was the longest span between titles; Pete Sampras (1990 and 2002) had previously led that list.
This was not a routine win by any means, because Azarenka served for the match at 5-3 in the third. But Serena won the last four games. It was the first three-set women’s US Open final in 17 years.
Serena was only the third woman to win Wimbledon, the Olympic gold medal in singles and the US Open in the same season, joining Venus and Steffi Graf.
“Three decades? The 90s, the 2000s, the 2010s?” Serena said. “That’s kind of cool.”
And then it happened again.
Serena and Azarenka advanced to the final and battled for three sets, with Serena prevailing 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-1to win her fifth US Open title and 17th major overall. For the second straight year, that one set in the final against Azarenka was the only one Serena lost. The win made her the first woman to clear $50 million in career earnings.
“She’s a champion, and she knows how to repeat that,” Azarenka said. “She knows what it takes to get there. I know that feeling, too. And when two people who want that feeling so bad meet, it’s like a clash."
No one -- after a startling variety of compromising circumstances -- played their way into tournaments better than Serena.
Nearly 33, Serena had failed to reach the quarterfinals at the season’s previous three Grand Slams but, as usual, came alive in New York. For the third time, she did not drop a set, defeating another good friend, Caroline Wozniacki, 6-3, 6-3 in the final. Make that three in a row.
Perhaps more poignant, this was her 18th major victory, tying her with Evert and Martina Navratilova, who were both there to share in the celebration.
“It is a pleasure for me to win my first Grand Slam here and then this No.18,” Serena said. “So I’m really emotional. I couldn’t ask to do it at a better place.”