Serena Williams bowed out of US Open and professional tennis with a third round defeat to Ajla Tomljanovic.
Williams’ performances against Danka Kovinic and Anett Kontaveit had given hope to the tens of thousands who had flocked to Flushing Meadows in hopes that her swan song would have a fairytale ending.
But despite a memorable fight back in the second set in a raucous atmosphere, there will be no record-equal 24th grand slam title, with Williams succumbing to a 7-5 6-7(4) 6-1 loss.
The 40-year-old, who played her first professional tennis match in 1995, calmly walked to the net after making a final forehand before swinging to all sides of Arthur Ashe Stadium as ‘Simply The Best’ played through the speakers.
Addressing the audience through tears, Williams said, “Thank you so much, you guys were amazing. I tried. Thanks Dad, I know you’re watching. Thanks Mom.
“I just want to thank everyone who is here, who has been by my side for so many years, literally decades, but it all started with my parents and they deserve everything, so I’m really grateful to them. And I wouldn’t be Serena if it wasn’t for Venus, so thank you Venus. It was a fun ride.”
When asked if there could be another chapter, Williams added: “I don’t think so, but you never know.”
Making her entrance again after a montage praising her greatness, Williams got off to a nervous start and dropped the serve immediately, but she quickly rallied, broke Tomljanovic back up and started to get on top.
Williams’ move was sharp and her groundstrokes were strong, and Arthur Ashe was ready to celebrate another set in the bag as she broke the serve again, leading 5-3.
But Williams, who has played very little tennis in the past 18 months, tightened at the wrong time, struggled to find her serve and Tomljanovic took the set with four games in a row.
The 29-year-old wanted to reach the fourth round in New York for the first time, but she is no stranger to the second week of slams after making the quarter-finals of Wimbledon back to back.
This occasion was, of course, something completely new and she felt the full force of Williams’ frustration at letting the first set slip.
With her serve now in progress, the 40-year-old stormed to a 4-0 lead. Tomljanovic came back with two games in a row and the Australian pushed for another break, but Williams dug deep and roared long and loud as she persisted.
But again she struggled to cross the line, failing to convert four set points into a long eighth game and relinquishing her serve when Tomljanovic equalized at 5-5.
At 4-4 in the tiebreak, Williams was three points from the end, but she took a deep breath, served an ace and forced a decider.
The frenzied crowd rose and Williams started the third set perfectly by breaking the Tomljanovic service again.
But as the game approached three hours, Williams’ physical exertion began to take its toll and she had little left to give.
At 5-1, Williams received a preemptive standing ovation. She held on grimly and saved five match points in vintage fashion, but with the sixth it was all over.
Tomljanovic, who will go on to play Liudmila Samsonova, described the moment as “surreal”.
She said: “I’m really sorry because I love Serena as much as you do. What she has done for tennis is unbelievable. I never thought I’d get the chance to play against her in her last game when I watched all those finals as a kid.”