NEW YORK — There is almost never a moment when Arthur Ashe Stadium is completely silent. It is too big, too vacuous. There are too many people scurrying to seats, having hushed conversations or clinking glasses filled with $22 cocktails. When tennis players come into this oversized den of concrete and steel, they know it is not supposed to be either quiet or comfortable.
And yet, as Serena Williams stepped to the line for what probably was the final match of a forever career, there was no discernible sound at all. The usual din and hum of nearly 24,000 people packed into the place had melted into an eerie nothingness, as though all those sets of eyes were locked onto the one person who had the power to deliver a moment that would stay in their memory forever.
To look with that much awe and intensity at Williams at this stage of her tennis life is to wonder what’s left inside from the player she once was, to see how deep her reservoir of greatness still reaches. She announced this U.S. Open would be her final tournament because she knows how much harder it is to conjure those championship qualities at this stage of the game, how demanding it is on the body and mind, even if her tennis on occasion is still good enough to compete with the best players on the planet.
Her athletic abilities may be diminished by all the miles and all the injuries and all the natural things that happen at age 40, but on Friday night, everyone in the arena got one final glimpse into Williams’ sporting soul. And though she did not win the match against 46th-ranked Ajla Tomljanovic, it would be hard to call what happened over those 3 hours and 4 minutes a defeat.
The score said Tomljanovic won, 7-5, 6-7, 6-1. She’ll move on to the Round of 16. Williams will just move on.
DEFINING GREATNESS: Serena Williams is a living legend. Just look at her records.
But after months, maybe years of knowing that time was running out, Williams finally felt what that was like on a tennis court Friday against a much younger player with just as much power and the guts to handle everything the New York crowd could throw at her. To even give herself a chance, Williams had to find something even greater than all the talent and determination that won her 23 Grand Slams.
What she found was the anger to push herself into one more thundering serve, one more all-out return, one more screaming forehand. And it was nearly enough. So, so nearly enough.
It was going to take a lot of things to get Williams to the finish line seven times in this tournament, to have the storybook ending that almost no great athlete gets. If her first match was about survival of nerves and her second was about turning back the clock, Friday was about channeling the frustration of being 40 and not as good as she used to be into something that could somehow win her one more match.
Williams was upset with herself for letting the first set slip away after serving for it at 5-3, only to fall into the trap of playing too safe. But she had no intention of accepting the sting of defeat meekly. She was too ticked off for that, anyway. If this was really the end, she was going to go out swinging — literally.
“In my career I’ve never given up, and in matches I don’t give up,” Williams said. “And I definitely wasn’t giving up tonight.”
It didn’t end the way she wanted. It didn’t end the way almost anyone in Arthur Ashe Stadium wanted. What Williams did to go from Compton to arguably the greatest women’s player of all time was the fairy tale. This was merely where the most insignificant part of the story had to stop.
And, almost certainly, it will stop. Though Williams has never called this a retirement, preferring instead to say she’s “evolving away from tennis,” she played well enough in three matches at the U.S. Open to perhaps plant a seed of doubt about whether this is the right call.
What if she had more than just a few weeks of preparation? What if she had a full offseason to train? Could she still win more Grand Slams? These are natural thoughts for Williams, particularly right now as she felt the level of her tennis get better with each match despite playing just four times this year before the U.S. Open. But maybe, in the end, they are questions better left unanswered.
“I always did love Australia,” she said, smirking as she referred to the next major, in January. “But you know what? I think I’ve come a long way since last year at Wimbledon, just not sure if that was my last moment or not and making it a different moment is much better. It takes a lot of work to get here. Clearly I’m still capable, but it takes a lot more like that. I’m ready to be a mom and explore a different version of Serena.”
This version, the one we saw Friday, could only be proud. Because until the very last point, her sheer force made it an epic tribute to the champion she was and always will be.
In the end, time just wouldn’t cooperate. Neither would Tomljanovic, whose steely composure in every tense moment was a revelation, even for herself.
“I was very nervous, and a little bit — I don’t like to say it — but a little fearful of things going really badly out there because I’m playing Serena,” she said. “I have faith in myself, but at the same time, I have a little doubt.”
Tennis matches can take a million paths, and there was a very clear moment when this one took a route that both bolstered Williams’ legend and likely crushed her chances of playing in the U.S. Open’s second week.
For a moment, when Williams belted the ball with all the power and frustration she could muster to take a 4-0 lead in the second set, it seemed like she might have wrested control even after that frustrating first set loss. At the very least, it was going to go into a third set where anything might happen. For the first time all night, Tomljanovic was on her heels and shaking her head.
The crowd had been roused to ecstasy. And suddenly Tomljanovic was facing a ravenous, vintage Serena who looked ready to grab this tournament like it belonged to her.
But all those long rallies, all the giant rips at the ball, all the mental fatigue of knowing what was at stake had conspired to leave Williams as vulnerable as a boxer staggering around the ring after throwing a flurry of punches that didn’t land.
When Williams put away a forehand for a 5-2 lead, fighting off a tough game where Tomljanovic threatened to break, she let out a primal scream that suggested a result much different than the one Williams ultimately had to accept.
But the next game — a 24-point marathon — started the slow unraveling of Williams’ chances. Had she put away the set right there, perhaps everything changes. Instead, Tomljanovic dug in just as viciously as Williams had. When she finally held serve, it was a body blow that had extracted a heavy physical price on Williams for no return on the scoreboard.
Williams ultimately won the set in a breathtaking tiebreaker, cracking a few more perfect forehands that cracked open the door of hope just a little wider. She even broke Tomljanovic’s serve in the first game of the third set for good measure.
But the damage was piling up. Williams’ competitive stamina was waning. And Tomljanovic simply would not fold.
“I know how much I hate playing players that don’t give up anything so freely,” she said. “You have to work for every point.”
Even at 5-1 in the third set, Tomljanovic would not allow herself to think that she was about to win the match. She had seen Williams escape the impossible too many times. She knew Williams plays her best tennis when she’s backed into a corner.
The crowd knew better. Understanding the inevitable was about to happen, they gave Williams one more standing ovation. And she rewarded them with five more match points fought off in another game of spellbinding determination and grit.
Tomljanovic knew she hadn’t done anything wrong. She had expected this. And yet, it was her job to finish it, which she finally did when Williams’ last forehand fell into the net.
“During the match I was so eager to win,” she said. “When it ended, it almost didn’t feel right.”
There was no disgrace in ending a match or a career this way. Williams was terrific, epic really. Tomljanovic was younger, a tiny bit better and most of all unrelenting in the biggest moment of her career.
And suddenly, she was in the background as Tina Turner’s “The Best” played and Williams paid tribute to her father, Richard, her mother Oracene Price, her sister Venus, her husband, her daughter and so many others. She wept and insisted they were happy tears. She teased a future comeback. But ultimately it was the goodbye she knew had to happen, the goodbye she wanted.
She didn’t get to hold a trophy, but she got to dig as deep as she could one more time. She got to turn that eerie silence in the biggest tennis stadium in the world into an indescribable burst of energy that can never be erased.
“I just honestly am so grateful that I had this moment,” she said. “And that I’m Serena.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Serena Williams falls at US Open, storied tennis career likely over