On one side of the net: the greatest woman tennis star ever to swing a racket, buoyed by a raucous New York crowd and a sense of growing momentum. On the other: the 46th-ranked player from Australia, notoriously jittery, sporting sewn-on ad patches on her tennis dress to earn a few extra bucks.
You wouldn’t think this would be much of a contest, now that Serena Williams had rediscovered her aim and footwork.
But a funny thing happened on the way to a storybook U.S. Open. Ajla Tomljanovic won the last six games in the third set to knock off Serena, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-1 in a third-round match Friday night that spoiled everything and may well have marked the end of the American’s tennis career. The crowd gave Serena a loud, fond farewell all evening, a fitting enough farewell – provided she truly decides to hang it up.
Serena would not leave town without a fight. She screeched and grunted and rushed the net, lifting the Ashe Stadium crowd to yet another level of passion, coming back from a first-set collapse that might have discouraged a lesser player. She saved five match points with courageous winners, stoking the crowd and adding to a legendary career that includes 23 major titles. When she lost the sixth, Serena gave Tomljanovic a cursory handshake at the net– she was never really a gracious loser. Then she spoke through tears to the adoring audience.
“I tried,” she said. “Thank you, daddy. I know you’re watching. Thanks mom. Everybody here who’s been on my side all these decades. Thank you, Venus. She’s the only reason that Serena existed. It’s been a fun ride, the most incredible ride I’ve been on in my life.
“I’m playing better,” she said. “I should have started earlier this year.”
The match was incredibly well played, and just as tense. To stay in the contest, Serena needed all the oomph on her first serve and some laser returns off Tomljanovic’s second serve.
But the decisive break came in the fourth game of the third set, when a Serena volley carried past the baseline. Tomljanovic then took it from there, defying the wishes of virtually everybody in the stands.
Tomljanovic finally ended things on the sixth match point, when Serena netted a forehand approach shot. The Aussie citizen then apologized to the crowd.
“I’m feeling really sorry because I love Serena just as much as you do,” she said. “I just thought she would beat me. I don’t know how many match points I needed to finish it off but that’s just who she is. If I’m not focused for two seconds she will run off with the third set.
‘I think she embodies that no dream is too big,” Tomljanovic said. “I will miss her around the courts. It will not be the same.”
On Wednesday, Serena had defeated a much higher-ranked opponent, Anett Kontaveit, with some brilliant tennis. This time, the rallies were too long, and Tomljanovic would not bail on them. She appeared fresh as a daisy as the match extended past the three-hour mark. Serena tried to shorten the points, flinging herself to the court on one attempted volley. Sometimes, the tactic worked. Sometimes, it didn’t.
Tomljanovic survived the chaos to reach the second week and face Ludmilla Samsonova of Russia in the Round of 16.
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It is never easy playing Serena Williams, anytime, anywhere. As many of her opponents discovered over the years, any match with Serena was always about Serena. She was a force of nature across the net who always controlled the narrative. But now this late summer, at Flushing Meadows, Serena’s matches had become something even more intense – an unprecedented, nighttime cauldron.
U.S. Open officials had shown no mercy on Serena’s challengers, staging all her matches in the early evening when temperatures were cooler and the atmosphere inside Ashe was much hotter. Tournament organizers and ESPN were all benefiting enormously from that scheduling. When Serena defeated Anna Kontaveit in the second round, every seat was filled and ratings peaked for the network at 5 million viewers.
Tomljanovic walked into an arena Friday that was tilted very steeply in favor of the American star. She had to hang out on the court before the match while the scoreboard blasted once again a montage of Serena highlights narrated by Queen Latifa. Tomljanovic tried hard not to pay attention.
“I mean, it’s Serena,” Tomljanovic said. “I think once you get to that status, you can do whatever you want. It’s just up to us to look at something else, not at the montage.”
Tomljanovic steeled herself for the partisan crowd by remembering something that Novak Djokovic once said about playing in a hostile setting.
“When the crowd was against him, he just pretends it’s for him,” she said. “When they chant, ‘Rafa,’ ‘Roger,’ whoever, he hears ‘Novak, Novak.’ I kind of liked that response.”
Whatever Tomljanovic told herself, it worked. She handled an impossible situation with poise and professionalism. She sent Serena packing, when nobody wanted to see the great sportswoman leave.
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