Serena Williams’ US Open, and possibly her storied career, ends in a third round thriller for the ages

Serena Williams after her third round loss at the US Open
Serena Williams, of the United States, acknowledges the crowd after losing to Ajla Tomljanovic, of Austrailia, during the third round of the U.S. Open tennis championships, Friday, Sept. 2, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Two days after watching vintage Serena Williams eliminate the number two seed Anett Kontaveit at the US Open, the crowd poured into Arthur Ashe Stadium on Friday night expecting a prime Serena performance. 

They didn’t get it. 

What they got instead was, in some ways, something greater. What they got was a firsthand example of exactly what made Serena Williams the greatest female tennis player of all time.

Even while not playing her best tennis, she put on a show. There were some tremendous winners, and there were some befuddling mistakes, but she just kept attacking. Like she knew how to do nothing else. She gritted her teeth and left everything she had on the court, eventually falling to Ajla Tomljanovic 7-5, 6-7 (4-7), 6-1.

Just thirty minutes into the match, few of the 23,000 fans in the audience expected that it would end the way it did. Williams was up 5-3 and serving for the set. After a difficult three-set battle with Kontaveit on Wednesday night, it seemed like she might be in for a smoother evening on Friday.

Only Tomljanovic didn’t want to comply. 

With the game 30-30, Williams had her Australian opponent running all over the court to stave off a set point, but Tomljanovic was up to the task. She kept Serena’s vicious groundstrokes in play and even returned with a few of her own. After two unforced errors by Williams allowed Tomljanovic to take the game, the underdog proceeded to win three more games in a row to capture the first set 7-5. 

For as good as Serena looked on Wednesday, she looked equally out of sorts at times on Friday. She double-faulted with chances to serve out games. She pulled some backhands wide and hit some forehands into the net. She seemed hesitant when she approached the net and didn’t display the consistent quality of movement that she showcased against Kontaveit. 

She had 51 unforced errors to just 30 from Tomljanovic. 

Still, the crowd tried to propel her forward. Every moment between points was filled with raucous cheers that echoed into the night above the Billie Jean King Tennis Center. They cheered every winner Serena hit. They clapped for every mistake Tomljanovic made. They were ruthless in their support for their queen. 

Nobody wanted to see the run end. 

After battling to win the first game of the second set through three deuces, Serena Williams walked around the other of the net and not towards her bench. She strolled, head down, calm and purposeful. Instead of taking a rest, she was thinking about what needed to be done. 

Up a break in the next game, Williams approached the net, and Tomljanovic rocketed a forehand right into her body. Williams shifted her hands inside and deftly dropped a volley on the line to win the point. She was back in business. 

Serena had three aces in the next game and quickly got out to a 4-0 lead in the second set. It seemed like she would take back control of the match, but Tomljanovic wouldn’t go away. She broke Serena and then easily held her own serve to battle back to 4-2 in the second set. 

Tomljanovic returned fire with fire, blasting groundstrokes back at the legend on the other side the net and fighting to deuce in Serena’s service game. On back-to-back points, the American played a groundstroke deep into the corner, forcing her Australian counterpart to loft a return that Serena crushed for a winner.

On each point, Williams let out a guttural scream near midcourt, matching the fans’ energy with her own. It still felt like this was her match to win. 

Serena Williams screams during her third round loss at the US Open
Serena Williams, of the United States, reacts during a match against Ajla Tomljanovic, of Australia, during the third round of the U.S. Open tennis championships, Friday, Sept. 2, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

But with a chance to win the set, Serena over-hit a backhand into the net. With another chance to take the set three points later, Serena hit a forehand into the net. Serena had another chance four deuces later. The crowd was so loud that Tomljanovic had to stop her serve to collect herself. The crowd booed her, no longer caring about anything other than a Serena victory. 

Tomljanovic responded by striking a forehand winner to get the game back to deuce.

There would be one more deuce, the eighth of a seemingly never-ending game before she held her serve. We were back to the 5-3 lead that Serena hadn’t been able to close in the first set.  

Again, Serena was unable to serve out the set, double-faulting to allow Tomljanovic to serve down 5-4. After Tomljanovic held her serve, we were tied 5-5, and the four games to none lead that Serena held seemed like a distant memory. 

This time, Serena held serve at 5-5 and put the pressure back on Tomljanovic. The Australian responded as she had all evening, holding serve and forcing a tiebreaker. 

“From the first ball I was happy; I felt comfortable,” said the Australian after the match. “From then on, it was kind of instinct.” You could see that instinct on display whenever she had her back up against the wall. 

Serena built up a 4-1 lead in the tiebreaker, but Tomljanovic fought back. Up 4-3, Serena thought two balls that her opponent hit were long but neither was called out. Serena would lose the point to bring tie the tiebreaker at 4-4. On the next point, Serena smashed an ace. A twenty-plus hit rally on the next point ended in a Serena forehand winner, and the roof would have exploded off of Arthur Ashe had it not already been open. 

One point later, Serena had won the second set, but a set that had looked to be quick and painless wound up taking 83 minutes. In the end, that might have been the difference. 

Serena seemed to just run out of gas in the third set. She broke to start the third set but was broken right back, and then was down 4-1 in a flash. The crowd began to get restless in the face of the increasing reality that this could be it. 

When Serena defeated won on Wednesday, the tournament seemed to open up for her. By knocking out the number two seed, she had essentially taken her spot in the draw. Playing against the 46th-ranked Tomljanovic seemed like an afterthought. The relatively unknown Australian was certainly not going to be the one to end the tournament, and possibly the career, of the best to ever do it. Not after Wednesday when it seemed like a deep run was inevitable. Perhaps even the storybook ending everybody wanted of going out with a championship.  

But it wasn’t meant to be. 

Not through any fault of Serena’s. No, she didn’t play the peak level of tennis we’ve seen from her in the past. There were a few too many mistakes in key moments. A couple of double faults more than we’re used to, but she played damn good tennis. She hit with power and found impossible angles to win points.

But Ajla Tomljanovic was just better. 

It’s crazy to write that sentence. But on Friday night, Ajla Tomljanovic was the better player. She rose to the occasion in a way that nobody expected. She matched Serena’s power, chased down shots that she had no business getting to, and responded to an incredibly unfavorable crowd atmosphere with steely-eyed focus. 

“I feel like I belong here now,” she said in the post-match press conference. “That’s why I expect myself to perform well in these circumstances.”

Perform she did. She seemed to get better as the third set went on, while Serena seemed worn down at times. The match was nearing three hours long, and Serena hadn’t played much competitive tennis in over a year. 

But she fought on. 

Down 5-1 in the third set, the crowd rose to their feet, applauding her not just for the effort she had given tonight but the effort she had given since she emerged on the scene in 1999. Just my section alone had families, groups of teenage friends, groups of middle-aged friends, and even a reporter who mentioned that she used to wake up at 6 a.m. in India to watch Serena at the US Open. 

They had all come to cheer on an icon. They had all come to watch another chapter being written in this legendary career. It wasn’t meant to be, but nobody in the stadium, including Serena Williams, was ready to admit it. 

She hit a forehand winner and screamed like we’ve come to expect. She fought off five match points in the final game before finally succumbing on the sixth. It was as if she was physically unable to stop playing tennis. Her body knew nothing else other than to keep the match going, to fight for every point. 

But the match did end and with it, potentially, the career of the best of all time. 

When asked after the match how she felt about being a part of tennis history, Tomljanovic was quick to joke: ” I mean, no one’s going to pronounce my name right. That’s going to suck. But, I mean, I do think I’ve been part of tennis history, so that’s pretty cool. I do feel a little bit like the villain.”

“It’s probably the most conflicted I’ve ever felt after a win,” she said. “During the match, I was so eager to win. I mean, I wanted to win as much as the next person…But then when it ended, it almost didn’t feel right.”

Serena being done didn’t feel right to anybody. Not even the woman who beat her. But it’s likely the reality that we have to face. 

Serena has been hesitant to say for sure that she’s done with tennis. Even on the court after the match, when asked if she would think about coming back, she said, “I don’t think so, but you never know. I don’t know.” But standing in that stadium, you couldn’t help but feel that a chapter had ended. Whether that’s the case or not, it’s hard to say for sure right now, but at least Serena knows what she’ll be doing next. 

“I’m definitely, probably, gonna be karaoking tomorrow.” 

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Ajla Tomljanovic beats Serena Williams at the US Open
Ajla Tomljanovic, of Australia, reacts during a match in the third round of the U.S. Open tennis championships, Friday, Sept. 2, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)