Serena Williams' inspiring run through the U.S. Open came to a close Friday night with a third-round loss to Australian Ajla Tomljanović, likely bringing down the curtain on the all-time great's storied career.
Tomljanović, the tournament’s world’s No. 46 ranked player, won the match 7-5, 6-7, 6-1 at 10:22 p.m on the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
The match was even going into the third set, but the player who brought tennis to a new level of precision and athleticism 25 years ago seemed to lose a step to Tomljanović's long-armed forehand and two-handed shotgun of a backhand.
Williams was often dragged to each corner of the baseline until the 29-year-old found an opportunity for a winner. The two went shot-for-shot, with Williams hitting a spectacular backhand overhead smash late in the match that made Arthur Ashe Stadium roar.
But when it counted most, Tomljanović's mental resolve bested the master of mental resolve.
The final game traded advantage as if it was the only game, until the sixth match point for Tomljanović, when Williams dumped her return into the net.
Williams waved to the crowd and twirled a last time as Tina Turner's "The Best" played. Court announcer Mary Joe Fernández reminded Williams it was true.
Williams thanked her parents and sister Venus, without whom, she said, there wouldn't be Serena. "It all started with my parents. And they deserve everything," she said.
"It’s been the most incredible ride and journey," Williams added. "I’m just so grateful to every person that’s ever said, 'Go, Serena.'"
For Tomljanović, who recalled being a child and watching Williams play, the win was "surreal."
“I’m feeling really sorry, just because I love Serena just as much as you guys do. And what she’s done for me, for the sport of tennis, is incredible," she told Fernández.
Tomljanović said she took the match one point at the time and couldn't lose focus, even after Williams bested her in the second set.
"Even to the last point I knew she's in a really good position to win even when she's down 5-1," Tomljanović said. "That's just who she is. "She's the greatest of all time. Period."
Fernández, noting the championship final-quality of the match, which included the last game's nail-biting lead changes, asked Williams if she would reconsider leaving the tour.
"I don't think so," Williams said. "But you never know."
If Williams' singles career is done, then her last victory will have been in Wednesday night's second-round action when she bested the tournament's No. 2 seed Anett Kontavei, 7-6 (4), 2-6, 6-2.
Serena and Venus Williams were eliminated from doubles play on Thursday.
Three weeks ago, the 40-year-old Serena Williams announced she would be "evolving away from tennis" after the U.S. Open and nearly a quarter-century of dominance.
And if this is indeed retirement from tennis for Williams, she leaves the court with a trophy case filled with 23 major singles titles: Six U.S. Open wins, six Australian Open titles, three French Open wins and eight Wimbledon championships.
Williams likely said goodbye to major competitive tennis on the same court where she first served notice of her impending greatness.
While very few opponents got the better of Williams, the iconic player said motherhood and age were unbeatable rivals that factored into her decision to hang it up.
“It comes to a point where women sometimes have to make different choices than men, if they want to raise a family,” Williams told Time magazine, in an interview that was posted hours before she took the court Monday. “It’s just black and white. You make a choice or you don’t.”
Williams said her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., was overjoyed when she learned that her mom might leave the game.
“That kind of makes me sad,” Williams told Time. “And brings anxiety to my heart.”
“It’s hard to completely commit,” she continued, “when your flesh and blood is saying, Aw.”