NEW YORK — After one last week of her signature magic, Serena Williams’ legendary playing career came to an end Friday night with a third-round loss to Ajla Tomljanovic at the US Open in front of nearly 24,000 fans.
The match capped the conclusion of a whirlwind 3½ weeks since Williams revealed her future plans, filled with countless tributes and record-setting crowds. From her announcement in Vogue until her final, emotional news conference, here’s what went on in front of and away from the cameras.
Aug. 9: Toronto
8:41 a.m.: The morning after playing in just her second match of the season, a first-round clash in Toronto, Williams announced her impending retirement — or “evolution” — in a first-person essay in Vogue. She indicated the US Open would be her final tournament.
“There is no happiness in this topic for me,” Williams wrote. “I know it’s not the usual thing to say, but I feel a great deal of pain. It’s the hardest thing that I could ever imagine. I hate it.
“I hate that I have to be at this crossroads. I keep saying to myself, I wish it could be easy for me, but it’s not. I’m torn: I don’t want it to be over, but at the same time I’m ready for what’s next.”
Aug. 10: Toronto
8:41 p.m.: A day after making her reveal, Williams lost in her second-round match in Toronto to Belinda Bencic 6-2, 6-4. After the match she was given an on-court ceremony. She was emotional as she addressed the crowd.
“It’s been a pretty interesting 24 hours,” Williams said. “I’m terrible at goodbyes but goodbye, Toronto!”
Aug. 14: Cincinnati
10:53 p.m.: Williams’ first-round match against reigning US Open champion Emma Raducanu had been announced for Monday, the opening day of play. But when the draw was revealed for the Western & Southern Open, the match was absent when the order of play was released late Sunday night — much to the outrage of many fans who had bought tickets and arranged travel specifically to watch their clash.
A tournament spokesperson said the change was due to “a number of factors related to scheduling.” Fans later told ESPN they were not able to get a refund or given an option to switch their tickets to Tuesday.
Aug. 15: Cincinnati
11 a.m.: There was at least a consolation prize for those fans in attendance on Monday hoping to watch Williams: Hundreds turned out to watch her on Practice Court No. 16. As one fan tweeted after the session: “I just watched Serena practice (in person) and you would think I just watched her win the US Open with how happy I am.”
Aug. 16: Cincinnati
4:31 p.m.: Several hundred fans crammed to catch a glimpse of Serena’s practice, yet again on Court 16. Some were standing on benches, others jockeying for space near the court, and still others looking on from the top levels of the nearby Grandstand court.
There were frequent “We love you, Serena!” cheers and attempts at selfies with her in the background. One woman loudly proclaimed watching Williams, even just in practice, was a “bucket list item fulfilled.” When the session was over, after 32 minutes, Williams waved to the crowd as she walked off the court.
5:08 p.m.: Williams was officially announced as an investor in Venus’ Happy Viking brand, a plant-based nutrition company, as part of a “milestone investment round,” according to a news release.
7:11 p.m.: With a near-capacity crowd in the stands — including four-time major champion Naomi Osaka — and after days of hype, Williams took the court to face Raducanu. She received a standing ovation as she walked out of the tunnel. Despite the reaction, she showed little emotion ahead of the match, not even a hint of a smile in her prematch photograph at net with Raducanu. But she couldn’t fully hide her frustration as she fell into an early 4-1 hole.
8:19 p.m.: Williams made a valiant effort to come back in the first set — winning three of the four games after the early deficit — but it wasn’t enough. And the second set was all Raducanu.
Ultimately, Williams was handed the 6-4, 6-0 loss in 65 minutes. It marked the third-fewest games Williams had won in a completed match in 15 years. While there had been speculation there would be an on-court farewell ceremony for Williams after the match, she instead rushed to grab her bag and headed almost immediately to the exit.
As she neared the tunnel she was stopped by the on-court interviewer, but she appeared to wave him off and continued to walk. A microphone that had been set up across the court from where Raducanu was getting ready to do her interview was then removed.
8:57 p.m.: Tournament officials confirmed Williams would not be holding a news conference following her loss. At that point, she hadn’t spoken to the media since making her announcement.
Aug. 17: Cincinnati
Evening: Williams was spotted at Cincinnati restaurant Carlo & Johnny. Charlie Bledsoe, the general manager, posted a picture of Serena at the establishment the following morning.
Aug. 23: New York
9 a.m.: Joined by world No. 3 Maria Sakkari, Williams had her first practice of the US Open on Arthur Ashe Stadium. In addition to her coach Eric Hechtman, whom she started working with ahead of Wimbledon, former player-turned-coach and ESPN analyst Rennae Stubbs was also on court as part of the team for the first time.
Williams’ dog Chip also made an appearance, much to Sakkari’s surprise.
12:13 p.m.: Spotify released the first episode of the new podcast series, “Archetypes,” from Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Cambridge, and it featured an interview with Williams. The two, who are longtime friends, discussed ambition, balancing a career with motherhood and Williams’ retirement.
“I just wanted to just walk away quietly,” Williams revealed about her initial plans. “And that’s how I’ve always seen my career. Just like, all right, I wanted to leave with no goodbyes.”
Aug. 24: New York
9 a.m.: Williams and her team were back on the court at Ashe, in front of a small group of fans, but this time with her Eastbourne doubles partner Ons Jabeur. It was a spirited session, and Jabeur later told reporters she felt “very lucky” to have gotten an opportunity to get to know and play with Williams.
Aug. 27: New York
9:30 a.m.: Three days before the start of the US Open, Williams rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange to celebrate her venture capitalist firm “Serena Ventures,” aimed at funding underrepresented entrepreneurs.
“It was incredible to see the room filled with photos of our founders showcasing our diversity,” Williams later said about the day.
Afternoon: Williams announced the death of her 18-year-old dog and constant companion Lauerlei with a post on Instagram. “She was the smallest yet toughest little pup and I will miss her… so much,” Williams wrote in part. “Truly the end of an Era.”
Aug. 28: New York
11 a.m.: While Angel City FC owners Alexis and Olympia Ohanian — also known as Williams’ husband and daughter — attended the team’s game against Gotham FC in Harrison, New Jersey, Williams had her last practice session on Ashe before the tournament got underway and spent time cracking jokes on court with her longtime pal (and rumored ex-boyfriend) Grigor Dimitrov.
Aug. 29: New York
7:03 a.m.: Time magazine released its latest issue with Williams on the cover and an accompanying caption that simply read: “The Greatest.” In the article, Williams admitted she had been happy about the progress she had made over the summer and already knew she would be second-guessing her decision come the Australian Open.
“I can see my improvement, and I’m like, ‘Dang, I’ll be good in January,'” she said.
9:35 a.m.: Before play got underway at the US Open, there already was a palpable buzz around the grounds for Williams’ match. Multiple vendors stood outside the entrance selling T-shirts commemorating her career. One read “Farewell Serena Williams” and another said “GOAT” on the back and listed several of her accomplishments. They cost $20 (or two for $30). One vendor said he usually sold similar merchandise outside of concerts but not usually at the US Open.
12:34 p.m.: Williams’ match look was revealed by Nike. Inspired by figure-skating dresses, and originally with six layers to represent her six US Open titles, the sparkly ensemble was paired with diamond-encrusted sneakers that read “Queen” and “Mama” on the shoelaces.
Olympia was later revealed to be wearing a matching dress for the match, and had her hair in braids and beads as a tribute to her mom’s early US Open appearances.
6:14 p.m.: With diamonds in her hair and thousands of fans surrounding all areas of the practice courts and cheering her name, Williams attended her final practice before her first-round match. She gave friend and retired former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, who was watching from the nearest sideline, a hug before she started to hit. Then she had a relaxed session with her team for 33 minutes before leaving to change and do other last-minute preparations in the locker room ahead of her match.
There were constant yells of “We love you, Serena!” and “Good luck, Serena!”
7:20 p.m.: With seemingly every person in the record crowd of 29,402 on their feet and pointing their phones to the entrance tunnel, Williams was introduced to the crowd ahead of her match against Danka Kovinic with a video tribute, narrated by Queen Latifah, and was then called the “greatest of all time” as she walked onto the court.
In the stands are a slew of A-list superstars, including former President Bill Clinton, Spike Lee, Gayle King, Laverne Cox, Bella Hadid, Gladys Knight and even Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff.
7:31 p.m.: With “Let’s go, Serena!” chants reverberating, Williams gave the crowd plenty of moments to cheer about throughout the 100-minute match. Ultimately, thanks in part to her signature serving prowess, Williams recorded the 6-3, 6-3 victory.
After the final point, she clenched her fists and hopped in celebration as the crowd roared. After shaking hands with Kovinic seconds later, she gave a trademark twirl and waved.
9:16 p.m.: The tournament had announced there would be an on-court ceremony honoring Williams’ career, win or lose, following the match. With Gayle King as the host, the display featured a tribute from Billie Jean King, as well as a video narrated by Oprah Winfrey.
“Thank you for showing us what it means to come back and for never, ever backing down,” Winfrey said. “Thank you for changing the face of the game, for inspiring the next generation. Thank you for thinking outside the lines and encouraging us to evolve. Thank you for showing us how to love the sport, and for always loving us back.”
10:21 p.m.: Speaking to the media for the first time since making her announcement, Williams called the reception from the crowd “really overwhelming,” but said it was a feeling she would “never forget.” While she reflected on her career and the future, she hedged slightly when asked if the US Open would definitely be her final tournament. “‘I’ve been pretty vague about it, right?” she said. “I’m going to stay vague because you never know.”
Aug. 31: New York
5:40 p.m.: With another large crowd eagerly hoping to catch a glimpse, and the diamonds still glittering in her hair, Williams arrived at the practice court to cheers and a slew of cameras following her every move.
While other star players, such as Gauff and 2019 champion Bianca Andreescu, and celebrities like former two-time NBA MVP-turned-Brooklyn Nets coach Steve Nash, walked around the area in relative anonymity, security guards cleared the path for Serena’s entrance and even temporarily closed the nearby entrance to the grounds in the moments before she arrived.
Once she began practice, Venus, who had been using the court, remained on the side of the court, chatting with Wozniacki and her husband, David Lee. A handful of lower-ranked players stopped and attempted to be discreet as they took photos of Williams from across the practice courts. After just over a half-hour on the court, Williams headed into the locker room to prepare for the match, walking off alone and giving two waves to the crowd.
7:16 p.m.: Again introduced to the crowd as the “greatest of all time,” and with another rowdy, sold-out crowd behind her, Williams showed no signs of an emotional hangover, nor of being intimidated by Anett Kontaveit’s No. 2 ranking.
In a hard-fought battle of big hitting and lengthy rallies, the first set went to a tiebreak, which Williams ultimately clinched with an ace. The second set was dominated by Kontaveit and Williams suddenly looked fatigued, but after a break ahead of the decider, Williams raised her level and found another gear. She took control during the final set, and the crowd reached a fever pitch.
9:43 p.m.: The entire stadium seemingly jumped collectively on its feet, and Tiger Woods raised his arms above his head in triumph from Serena’s player box, as Williams won the match after two hours and 27 minutes. She didn’t give as much of a smile until after she met Kontaveit at the net. Only then did Williams walk back onto the court and give a twirl, and she couldn’t stop smiling.
“It’s no rush here,” Williams told ESPN’s Mary Joe Fernandez on court. “I’m loving this crowd. Oh my goodness. It’s really fantastic. So there’s a little left in me.”
10:47 p.m.: Joined by several members of her entourage, including sister Isha Price and agent Jill Smoller — wearing a Gucci jacket that read “Fake” on the front and “Not” on the back — Williams was in a jovial mood as she spoke to reporters in her news conference. She made jokes about her bathroom break — insisting she didn’t go “No. 2” — and shared how much fun she was having, calling her results “a bonus.”
But despite knocking off the No. 2-ranked player in the world, Williams quickly downplayed any questions about her chances of winning major title No. 24.
“I cannot think that far,” she said. “I’m here, like I said. I’m having fun and I’m enjoying it. Honestly, I’ve had so many tough matches the last I don’t know how long that I just feel like just being prepared for everyone that I play is just going to be really, really difficult.”
Sept. 1: New York
5:11 p.m.: With another packed crowd waiting to watch her, Williams arrived at the practice court for a training session with Venus. There were no other players remaining on the practice courts when Serena arrived, and seemingly every eye was on her as she made her way to the court.
Unlike her two previous practices ahead of her matches, Williams appeared slightly more relaxed and even smiled and acknowledged the crowd while entering. A more stoic Venus appeared about 90 second later, also to great fanfare. The two were slow to begin hitting, taking several minutes to stretch and get ready, and ultimately spent much of their time on the courts next to each other hitting separately. Frequent “We love you, Serena” and “Let’s go, Venus!” cheers are heard throughout.
7:07 p.m.: Before the sisters took the court for their match against Lucie Hradecka and Linda Noskova, a video narrated by Questlove was played for the crowd celebrating their joint accomplishments. Moments later, the two walked out while 2Pac and Dr. Dre’s “California Love” played. While this was clearly a celebration of the two in many ways, it was apparent both were taking the match seriously and both showed little emotion.
7:20 p.m.: The match began as another star-studded crowd, including Billie Jean King, Adam Silver and Anna Wintour, looked on. While they hadn’t played doubles together in over four years, their ease and comfort with one another was quickly on display, and they exchanged knowing glances and supportive words after every point. The two lost the 72-minute first set in a tiebreak and struggled to find momentum in the second. Ultimately they lost the match 7-6 (5), 6-4.
9:25 p.m.: Serena and Venus shared a hug on the court as fans stood in ovation when the match ended, both knowing this would likely be the last time they ever competed alongside one another. There was no formal ceremony, nor did they participate in an interview on the court or in a news conference, but everyone cheered as they left the court together.
Hradecka even apologized to the crowd after the victory during an on-court interview. “I’m so sorry for you that we beat them, but we are so happy that we did it.”
Sept. 2: New York
5:45 p.m.: Exactly 15 minutes after her practice was originally slated to begin, Williams walked alone as she made a fashionably late entrance to the practice courts. There were thousands of fans everywhere hoping to watch — crammed into the seats, pushed up around the fences, and even in a line that wound around the facility. Many never got their chance to actually see her, as her practice lasted just over 30 minutes, but everyone in the area cheered loudly when she made her way off.
7:08 p.m.: Williams took the court for her match against Ajla Tomljanovic after an updated video montage played, including images and highlights from the week. Yet again, she kept a poker face as she readied for the match.
7:17 p.m.: There was an energized atmosphere before the match, with fans screaming and cheering and thousands of camera phones pointed toward Williams as she opened the match on serve. Tomljanovic, however, was clearly prepared for the moment and not rattled by the crowd, nor her opponent across the net. She took the 49-minute first set 7-5.
9:31 p.m.: After opening the second set with a 4-0 run, a decider looked all but guaranteed for Williams. But Tomljanovic made Williams work for it, staving off four set points in the nine-deuce eighth game of the set. Ultimately the set, and fate of the match, was decided by a tiebreak. Williams won and the stadium erupted.
10:22 p.m.: After the highly physical second set, Williams didn’t have much left in the tank for the decider. She won the first game, but Tomljanovic rattled off the next five. With a 5-1 lead, and serving for the match, Tomljanovic looked ready to punch her ticket to the fourth round — but Williams wasn’t ready to concede just yet. She found a few final moments of magic, and gave it everything she had.
It wasn’t enough. Tomljanovic needed six match points but eventually sealed the win 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-1. Williams immediately went to the net to congratulate her.
10:25 p.m.: After briefly covering her face with a towel, Williams walked back on court to talk to ESPN’s Fernandez. It took only a few seconds before she began to cry.
“Thank you Daddy, I know you’re watching. Thanks Mom,” she said as her voice broke. “Everyone that’s here, that’s been on my side, for decades, literally decades…
“These are happy tears, I guess. I don’t know. And I wouldn’t be Serena if there wasn’t Venus, so thank you, Venus. She’s the only reason Serena Williams ever existed. … It’s been a fun ride. It’s been the most incredible ride of my life.”
But she didn’t completely shut down the idea of a future comeback: “I don’t think so, but you never know.”
10:29 p.m.: Williams made a heart gesture with her hands and gave one final wave to the crowd before walking off the court as Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” played over the loudspeaker.
10:55 p.m.: Williams gave one final news conference to a packed room. There were tears and she didn’t try to conceal her emotions. She shared her plans to spend more time with her daughter, and her hopes to “explore a different version of Serena.” When asked again about the possibility of a comeback, she made the entire room laugh with her response.
“I’m not thinking about that. I always did love Australia, though.”
11:06 p.m.: With many of her family and friends in the room, Williams thanked everyone in attendance and then got up from her seat. She looked one last time around the room and then headed for the exit.
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