NEW YORK -- Nearly a week has passed since the conclusion of a stunning, defining US Open. The tarps covered the courts. The engravers etched new names on the championship trophy, and one word -- evolution -- wafted high in the air above the rest.
In a city transformed, the tournament cautiously peered out from the pandemic's shadow. Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the kings who have held the game tightly in their grip for nearly 20 years, were nowhere to be seen on the final weekend. The combined ages of the two champions, 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz and 21-year-old Iga Swiatek, equaled that of the dominant narrative figure of the fortnight: Serena Williams. The adjectives served as tributaries emptying at the same place: At long last, tomorrow had arrived.
I hadn't covered a live sporting event since 2019, hadn't covered the US Open since 2016 and hadn't seen Serena win a major here since 2014, when she beat Caroline Wozniacki for No. 18, joining Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova as the gold standards of American tennis during the Open era. Serena had just told the world in early August that she would "evolve away from tennis" after the Open.
Out of curiosity and nostalgia, I arrived in New York and set up shop at the Grand Hyatt on 42nd and Lexington, long the Midtown epicenter of the tennis world during the Open, famous for being the first real estate renovation project of Donald Trump when he gutted the old Commodore Hotel and reopened it as the Grand Hyatt in 1980. Before the pandemic, it had been the official hotel of the tournament, buttressed by other hotels -- the Marriott East Side, the Roger Smith, the InterContinental and the legendary Waldorf Astoria. Affiliated with the tournament, it housed tournament-goers and provided chartered bus service to the grounds at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. The Hyatt's vast lobby was legendary, bustling with professional players, juniors, coaches and executives, with that special New York murmur -- "Isn't that Andy Murray?" Because it was also the team hotel where every MLB team stayed when they came to play the Yankees or Mets, for the two weeks of the Open the hotel crackled with the triple energies of tennis, baseball and New York City, the way the city crackles like none other when something big is going on. It was a tennis lover's dream.
Sunday, Aug. 28: Ghost towns and street meat
The tennis energy at the Grand Hyatt is gone. Baseball teams abandoned the hotel years ago. The New York energy? Well, that's gone, too. Built in 1924 as the Shelton Towers Hotel, the Marriott East Side permanently closed during the pandemic in 2020, its legendary façade and mouldings now marred by graffiti. The Roger Smith, opened in 1929, is closed. The Waldorf Astoria, which opened in 1931 during the Great Depression, is closed for a $1 billion renovation and scheduled to reopen next year -- but slashing 74% of its rooms in favor of condominiums ranging from $1.8 million to $18.5 million. Only the InterContinental surged with tennis.
There is a difference between effect and damage, and when the pandemic first hit, the effects could be felt everywhere -- hospitals beyond capacity, masks, mandates, deaths -- but the damage remains present and unknown in its completeness. The National Center for Health Statistics reported recently that the average American life expectancy dropped for the second consecutive year.
The Grand Hyatt is still open, but it, too, is a ghost town. A doorman, yearning for yesterday, watched as fans heading to the Open bypassed the hotel on their way to the No. 7 train. When the pandemic hit, the hotel temporarily closed, planning to reopen in 2026 as an 83-story luxury condominium tower, and like the Waldorf, slashing 62% of its rooms. New York City passed a law giving hotels an ultimatum: Those with at least 100 guest rooms would have to either reopen and rehire 25% of their employees, or pay their laid-off workers $500 per week for 30 weeks. The Grand Hyatt reopened last November, renamed the Hyatt Grand Central, with room rates that still eclipse $400 per night -- but stripped itself bare. The hotel eliminated its club lounge, bar, restaurant and room service. In a 1,298-room hotel, guests cannot buy a bottle of water after 10 p.m. The doorman laments the decline of a once-great hotel where fans waited outside for a glimpse of Pete Sampras or Barry Bonds. The big names are as gone as surely as the food. One hungry hotel guest, a former member of Novak Djokovic's coaching team, settled for street meat -- falafel from a Halal pushcart in front of the hotel. Everything ends.
Monday, Aug. 29: Mike, Martina and a dog
Aided by finality, the energy in Flushing resounded. Day 1 belonged to Serena Williams. Her Aug. 9 announcement in Vogue transformed the grounds into a farewell celebration and big-city happening all at once. The tournament said her news spiked advance ticket sales. By the end of the week, the Open would set an attendance record: 549,657 fans through its first eight days. The previous record was 540,333, in 2019.
Fans paid homage to Serena with their gear. Young fans wore white beads in their hair, as Serena did when she first hit the tour as a teenager 27 years ago. Fans commiserated in solemn, disbelieving acknowledgment. ("Was this really it?") Players were asked less about their tournament aspirations and more about Serena's impact on them. The rising teenager Coco Gauff, all of 18 years old but a favorite to win the tournament, implored fans to give Serena the send-off she deserved, a subtle nod to past hostilities -- a glorious send-off might not be a given. Only one piece of news overshadowed the Serena storyline, and it came from Serena herself: She and her sister Venus, 14-time major champions in doubles and 14-0 in finals, would enter in doubles. The tournament already was buzzing, for this year's Open was the first to sell tickets at capacity since 2019, the last year before the pandemic. In 2020, no tickets were sold. In 2021, grounds passes -- the true lifeblood of any tennis event, really -- were limited.
When there is a happening, celebrities are sure to be there -- and Arthur Ashe Stadium was the New York spot. One by one, they rolled onto the red carpet, sunglasses on no matter what time of day. Spike Lee, Anthony Anderson, Vera Wang, Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, Matt Damon, Queen Latifah, Hugh Jackman, among the many. Former President Bill Clinton sat next to Dr. Ruth Westheimer. The video board panned to a sleeping Mike Tyson sitting a seat away from Martina Navratilova, a dog on her lap. The bizarre, glittering opulence resembled the heavyweight fights of old, the place to be for everybody who considered themselves a somebody.
Underneath the glitter lie a certain foreboding -- the cold facts of Serena Williams, the 2022 edition. Entering the Open, she had not played well -- four matches, three losses, one to 115th-ranked Harmony Tan at Wimbledon, home of seven of her major titles. In her last match, she was handed a 6-0 second-set bagel in Cincinnati by last year's US Open champion Emma Raducanu, a match highlighted by Williams, long the greatest returner in the game, flustered by a pedestrian Raducanu serve that couldn't break an egg. For the past two years, the strategy to beat Williams has been to move her laterally. This wasn't the Serena of old. The book was now cruelly open: Her 40-year-old legs could now be beaten side-to-side. The draw was favorable -- her first-round opponent was 80th-ranked Danka Kovinic of Montenegro -- but expectations were not particularly high. A sad goodbye awaited.
There was, however, a rumor going around that between the Raducanu disaster and the Open, Serena had gone into overdrive, specifically addressing the exposures in the scouting report: rediscovering her aggression on return, prepping to take this finale seriously -- prepping to win. Attacking serve has historically been the unspoken key to her greatness. The greatest server in the game also happened to be the greatest returner, and the combination of the two has made her impossible to defeat consistently.
The evening was an absolute spectacle, awkward, ridiculous, electric -- a celebrity retirement roast for a guest of honor who decides to go back to work the next day. The lights went dark for Serena's rock concert entry, and she needed 100 minutes to reach the second round, winning 6-3, 6-3. The rumors were true: She returned and served, aggressive, dominant. She moved better than she had all year. The roars for her successes were deafening, polite and throaty, partisans happy to be able to say they were there. The crowd was not particularly polite to Kovinic, but nor was it directly hostile -- fans simply wanted the player who'd given them a lifetime of memories to stay a while longer.
Nevertheless, it was difficult to think of another major in recent memory where an opponent enjoyed zero support. Major tournaments are ostensibly neutral affairs, but there was nothing neutral here, and the USTA did not help. Before the tournament, organizers decided to make the night a gala, win or lose -- and, on its face, the decision made sense. Had Serena lost, the planned send-off would have been appropriate, but even beating Kovinic did not guarantee a next match, for a practice injury or illness could have forced a withdrawal and derailed it and the opportunity to properly celebrate her lost. Thus, even though Serena would play Wednesday and this was not goodbye after all, the postmatch feting featured a lengthy emceeing by CBS News co-anchor Gayle King with cue cards in hand, on-court interviews with Serena, a long video tribute by Oprah Winfrey, speeches from Billie Jean King and acknowledgements of the entire family. When Billie Jean mentioned expanding the family and Serena seemed to demur, fans behind me whispered in excited, gossipy speculation. The US Open was simultaneously hosting a championship tournament and a goodbye party -- and as long as Serena was alive in the tournament, the latter would be far more important than the former.
Tuesday, Aug. 30: The sugar high
Without Serena playing, Day 2 was a chance to roam the grounds and see Aryna Sabalenka, the Belarusian 6-seed, who is the most human of players. Forecast for greatness since she came on tour, Sabalenka has been a great player beset by nerves as the air of the tournament gets thinner. She's never reached a major final. She reached the semifinal last year as the No. 2 player in the world and was inexplicably ousted by teen sensation Leylah Fernandez. Sabalenka has a love-hate relationship with her massive serve. Entering the Open, Sabalenka had 339 double faults, by far most on tour, 140 more than Gauff, who was second. Sabalenka was on Court 10, playing American qualifier Catherine Harrison, and the minute I arrived, she double-faulted. Her shoulders sagged and her face crinkled -- a prelude, it seemed, to tears. A compassionate crowd, perhaps embarrassed by its voyeurism, reacted as if it wanted to cry with her -- and tried to console her with support. Tennis is the most naked of sports -- no teammates, no help defense, no caddie to help line up a putt, and no closer to come finish the job. The world watched her troubles. On this day, it also saw her win 6-1, 6-3.
On Ashe, Alcaraz was the new marquee name. The Spanish teenager is built like a 28-year-old. He beat the top three players in the world -- Nadal, Djokovic and Alexander Zverev -- en route to the Madrid title. He plays with a relentlessness reminiscent of his countryman Nadal, but an attacking style that comes from idolizing Federer, as does that vigorous racket shake after a winning point.
There were others. Russian Andrey Rublev hits the ball, every ball, as if the ball stole his lunch money. Two players, Australian Nick Kyrgios and Gauff, had everyone's attention for different reasons. Kyrgios is the immature bad boy who verbally abuses supporters in his players box but has finally decided to get serious and fulfill his place as the most gifted, most dangerous player in the game. Gauff has been on everyone's radar for three years, since she beat Venus Williams at Wimbledon as a 15-year-old. Careers and reputations were being made all around the grounds, and the joy of winning was apparent, in the faces of the young players whose dreams were now real and in the tour veterans who know best how difficult winning truly is.
The beauty of the Open is being able to see those faces up close. The proximity to the players, especially on the smaller courts, offers a stark contrast from the cavernous, 24,000-seat Ashe, the largest tennis stadium in the world. Still, as record crowds scoured the courts and got glimpses of the other world-class players, one name towered above them all: Serena.
Day 2 was like a sugar high, a euphoria that refused to subside. Even Venus' sad, predictable first-match loss on Ashe to the Belgian Alison Van Uytvanck did not dim the mood. Strangers asked each other whether they had seen Serena the night before and scrambled to change their plans to see the sisters Thursday night on Ashe. Staffers and fans, journalists and players wondered what could serve as an encore for Wednesday night's Serena match. A member of the Open staff who had been here 25 years told me the energy Monday reminded him of the US Open immediately following 9/11, the circumstances obviously incomparable, but similar in that thousands of people were just waiting to release a collective energy, a collective need to exhale, to scream. "I have never heard this place so loud."
Wednesday, Aug. 31: The avatar
For days it had been difficult to pinpoint exactly what was occurring during this Open, but after Day 3, what fueled this stirring finally crystallized. Certainly, it wasn't just the tennis. Top athletes had retired before. The passion of the moment, of saying goodbye, the ritual of looking back at their careers and back at our own lives and are all legitimate, standard sentimental experiences. This Serena farewell felt different. Much different. Then it finally clicked: It wasn't about tennis at all.
Serena defeated No. 2 seed Anett Kontaveit 7-6 (4), 2-6, 6-2, and the New York crowd began to think just a little bigger. Murmurs of the most famous moment in Open history -- Jimmy Connors' 1991 semifinal run -- grew slightly louder ("Look at her draw! There's a chance!"). While the Monday crowd appreciated that the ride would not end on the first night, the Wednesday crowd felt more muscular, simultaneously defensive of her and offensive toward any perceived opponent. It felt less celebratory and more hungry, more righteous. This was not a party. This was a fight.
Perhaps the increase in decibel and purpose was due to Kontaveit's résumé. Serena going up against a world No. 2 required full engagement. Kontaveit was not the second coming of Steffi Graf by any means -- she in fact had been struggling throughout the year, derailed by the effects of long COVID -- but she was still ranked second in the world, and the prospects of playing a top-five player were daunting. Perhaps, also, the crowd was trying to will itself to think two moves ahead. Beating Kontaveit created a lane to the big prize: getting to the second week. Two top seeds, Maria Sakkari and Simona Halep, already had crashed in the first round. Maybe there was a chance. Maybe magic awaited.
The Kontaveit match felt demarcating. The introductions were the same as on Monday, lavishing Serena while Kontaveit endured the regal entrance, but Wednesday's roar was not Monday's roar. At one point, a raucous group of U.S. Marine cadets, all female, all Black and brown, all Serena partisans, sat behind me. The exhale on every point taking the form of ever-increasing decibels. With every call that went against Serena, one of the cadets would yell, "HAWK-EYE!" in reference to the electronic line-calling system. Clearly, a line call against Serena was the result of a bias and the women sought an appeal, not realizing that the US Open no longer uses human line calling. "It's all Hawk-Eye now," I told one the cadets, and with the exception of ball kids, I pointed to the court and alerted her to the absence of the traditional linespeople.
"Oh, snap! They are gone! That's good, though. I could never be a judge for one of Serena's matches," one of the cadets responded. "It doesn't matter. I'd call every 'out' ball for Serena 'in.' Ten feet out? In. In ... In ... In!"
The cadet next to her agreed.
"When Serena is playing," she said, "'In' is a social construct."
Starting with the enormous roars for Serena during a rousing first set, and the unfortunate lack of tennis etiquette from many of the fans, who loudly cheered Kontaveit's missed first serves and her double faults even more loudly (a grave and gauche tennis no-no), to ultimately watching Serena rise, turn back the clock, hit 11 aces and crush a wilting Kontaveit in the third, the significance of the moment drew itself into focus.
Whether they were the pure tennis fans who fell in love with her nearly 30-year career, the disparate strains of fans came to watch Serena for their own, different reasons: the female underdog who saw a fighter against patriarchy who possessed so much talent that she could now topple elements of it; the Black women who so desperately found in her a champion to win the battles they've so often lost in this country; the Black people proud to have a superstar dominate in an environment that never encouraging their participation in large numbers. She served as an avatar for each, and now, all of the reasons over all of the years were meeting, at last, in the same place, at the same time, emotions heightened by it being the final opportunity to do so.
This was the end, and being part of the match brought them forward -- and looking back. For Black people, Serena and Venus reconnected them to a Black tennis heritage they may not have known existed. After Serena-Kovinic, more than a few people asked whether I had ever seen so many Black people on the grounds. The question surprised me, because the Open has been the one sporting event where I've annually seen the most Black paying customers. Like basketball and golf, tennis is the spectator sport that the watchers actually play, and Black people have been playing tennis since the 19th century. It was the center of segregated Black middle-class culture, a top sport at historically Black colleges and formed its playing circuit, the American Tennis Association, before the 1920 formation of the Negro Leagues. The integration of the sport cut modern-day Black people from those roots because money and racism kept Black people from integrating the larger, exclusive tennis culture, leaving a few individuals -- Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson, Katrina Adams, Mal Washington, Zina Garrison -- to play against an overwhelmingly white, affluent backdrop. Much to the consternation of the previous generations who come from the old lineage, Black people in tennis today have been reframed, from the Black, self-sufficient, middle-class college game to a sport where they are seen almost completely through the lens of economic disadvantage, white benevolence and all the accompanying, reductive adjectives. Inner city. Marginalized. Underserved.
The sisters are not descendants of the HBCU/ATA tradition, but their unique journey added a new branch to the historical tree by being the first Black mainstream superstars in the history of American tennis. There were other champions, other great players. Ashe was a great. He was a legend. He won three major titles and remains the only Black man to win a major. The largest tennis stadium in the world is named after him, but he was never a superstar by the modern pop culture definitions, a singular player who owns the imagination of his sport for an extended time, whose game and mannerisms are sold, marketed and imitated by the next generations. During Ashe's time, that title went to Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, Billie Jean King and Chris Evert.
This would never be seen again, for now future Black players -- as Gauff and Frances Tiafoe, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys already can attest -- are measured by the standards of the Williams sisters. Those Black fans who roared as they did during the Kontaveit match knew they were witnessing something they would never witness again: the birth of the Black tennis superstar. The foundations of the phenomenon were rooted not in cheers and an open door, but exclusion.
When Richard Williams told his girls tennis did not want them and winning was the only way the world would listen to them, he conveyed a very different message than telling players to go out, work hard, do their very best, and things would work out. He was challenging an institution -- a nation, really -- and telling his girls that doing their best was not going to be good enough, because they were entering hostile territory. There would always be people shortchanging them precisely because they were not welcome. Black people understood that inherent hostility, for they had experienced their versions of Indian Wells 2001 in the classroom, the boardroom, the dormitories and at the lunch counters without the abilities of these two geniuses who were poised to disrupt how the sport was played -- and who played it. Black people also understood the root of that hostility was actually the integration America said it welcomed, for if the sisters succeeded, certainly there would be others.
As Kontaveit mounted a second-set comeback, it was instructive to think back a quarter century to the people who feared the coming urbanization of tennis (and there were plenty) -- with its Black style, cool and furious, unmuted competitive fury -- and punished the Williams sisters for their raw competitiveness. As Kontaveit had taken the second set and the end seemed close now, fans now wanted the fist pumps, the signature Serena "COME ON!" self-exhortations in pressure moments (or KAMAAN, as her die-hards phonetically spell it on social media). A sport once resistant to evolving culture now realized it was almost over and did not want it to end.
For Black women, the protective shield around Serena is an obvious projection, a mirror for a people who saw their daily grievances played out through her. The overprotection and defensiveness of her was not because Serena needed it, but because her supporters did. "When Serena is playing, 'in' is a social construct." For the tennis fans who complained of "Serena fatigue" during the spectacle and wanted her farewell to be about the meritocracy of winning or losing a tennis match, being unwilling to confront these various strains of complexity contributed directly to their existence.
Black women took criticism of Serena so personally because the language used for her over the years has been the same language used to attack Black women -- any Black woman. Same language, same playbook, same tone, coming from the same people. Criticizing Serena has been perceived, often rightly, as attacking Blackness and Black women not because Serena should be immune from criticism, but because the same negative assessments of her are derived from the predictable impulse to take free shots at Black women. When Russian Tennis Federation head Shamil Tarpischev referred to Venus and Serena as "the Williams brothers," it was a clear attack on their physiques and looks -- no different than disgraced West Virginia public official Pamela Taylor's attack of Michelle Obama on Facebook following Donald Trump's election, writing, "It will be refreshing to have a classy, beautiful, dignified First Lady in the White House. I'm tired of seeing a Ape in heels."
The editorial cartoon that appeared in the Melbourne Sun following Williams' 2018 US Open finals loss to Naomi Osaka carried both a racial taint and a tone-deaf response. The Australian cartoonist, Mark Knight, drew an overweight Serena stomping on her racket while drawing a small, thin, harmless blond white woman as her opponent and not the brown-skinned, 5-foot-11 Haitian-Japanese Osaka. Faced with backlash, Knight then penned a follow-up cartoon of him at his board as victim, his free speech violated by the people who criticized his original effort, the judger unfairly critiqued by the judged. It was their oversensitivity, and not his insensitivity, that was the problem. He was the victim. There was no way he could be wrong.
It is the same playbook used by Romanian Ion Tiriac, the former player and tournament director who last year assessed Serena: "At this age, and the weight she is now, she does not move as easily as she did 15 years ago ... Serena was a sensational player. If she had a little decency, she would retire."
The nadir which resulted in a firestorm occurred in July 2015, with Serena in full flight about to win her sixth Wimbledon title when an infamous New York Times article titled "Tennis's Top Women Balance Body Image With Ambition" quoted the coach of former Wimbledon finalist Agnieszka Radwanska (who lost to Serena in the 2012 Wimbledon final) saying of Radwanska, "It's our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10. Because, first of all she's a woman, and she wants to be a woman." The contrast of Radwanska's perceived feminism was not to critique an outmoded culture or challenge the false equivalency of choosing athleticism or femininity, but the contrast was to ... drumroll ... Serena, with the opening focusing on her biceps and her "mold-breaking muscular frame." The Times did itself no favors by promoting its story with a Twitter post that read, "Serena Williams has a muscular frame. Her rivals choose not to emulate her physique."
Black women see these attacks as othering and insulting, even though decades of adjusting to the sisters' play has produced a generation of players -- American, European, Russian -- the same size or bigger than Venus or Serena. Nor is the truth that many of the bodies of female players today more closely resemble the Williams sisters assuaging, for mocking Black people today only to emulate them tomorrow has historically been a typical American response. Nor do attacks on Black women subside simply because white women can rival them in size and strength, for every year there is another Tiriac or Tarpischev or clumsy thought piece, and no milky, after-the-fact apologies prevent the arrival of another.
In response to the hostility, Black women responded by creating an invisible fence around Serena -- and by proxy, themselves. What has been done to Serena has also been done to them, without the protection of being an affluent, genius athlete. Serena may not always be bothered by these attacks, as she apparently wasn't in 2012 when her friend Caroline Wozniacki walked on court during an exhibition match against Maria Sharapova in Sao Paulo with towels stuffed down the front and back of her tennis kit to spoof Serena's curves. But Black women certainly never forgot, and Serena chose to defend Wozniacki from being called a racist. As the award-winning poet Claudia Rankine wrote of the moment in her seminal book "Citizen": "At last, in this real, and unreal, moment, we have Wozniacki's image of smiling blond goodness, posing as the best female tennis player of all time." To criticize her is to criticize them. She is the avatar.
As much as she is treated as idiosyncratic, completely unto herself, a self-made athletic monument who has parlayed her excellence into a portfolio, it is impossible to separate Serena Williams from her time or from the last decade of how American life has been reshaped by seismic movements across race, class and gender. It explained the people who were at Ashe to see her and knew so little about watching a live tennis match. She had long been described as a symbol, but here it was playing out in real time, in the reactions to her while she was doing her job. Symbolizing what the beholder needed symbolized. Not everyone was here for the tennis. They weren't here for it. They were here for her.
It was fitting that Tiger Woods was in Serena's players box, for like her, he was once the avatar, overshadowing another country club sport that excluded Black people, and in turn representing whatever people saw in him regardless of whether he embodied their sentiments. Serena could not be separated from the tumultuous decade that has shaped and reshaped American life, and it explained why the environment on the grounds felt so intense, so personal.
The Me Too movement and Oscars So White made it impossible -- or at least far less likely -- for powerful men and institutional structures to buy their way out of problems while leaving the culture intact. Women could no longer be placated with promises of a piece of the pie without walking out of the room with a slice. More lead acting roles. Coaching jobs. More play-by-play and color commentator jobs in the past decade than in the previous 50.
Williams is both a trailblazer through her talent, access and resources, but she is also a beneficiary of these larger movements. The judgers get to talk now, and when they do, they protect Serena. A shift in language has followed. During Serena's matches in New York, the digital displays on the sidelines flashed the words "GREATEST OF ALL TIME," not intended to create debate but to silence it. The constant repetition of Serena as the greatest of all time in any sport does not represent the seeds of a statistical debate -- like Serena, Steffi Graf could easily be seen as the greatest player in her sport -- but rather the establishment of a political one, a demand that women be acknowledged in the only way possible: by bludgeoning to death the once-exclusive male definitions and languages of greatness.
Through advertising, marketing and merch, her sponsor, Nike, provided a bullhorn for that shift. Chris McKendry, the ESPN host, gave national television an exhausted eyeroll at the idea of Serena fatigue, reminding her audience that when a certain quarterback retires (Tom Brady), there won't be enough hours of retrospectives. The world, in other words, will survive if Serena gets her due, and then some. It is a time of correction and recompense.
So much of the agreement to engage in the correction. They hear the words differently, such as when the dearth of American tennis champions is mentioned on national broadcasts -- or worse, when another American actually wins. It invariably excluded Serena and Venus with the odd qualifier (the last champion NOT named Venus or Serena) instead of embracing the truth: There is no dearth of American tennis success, not when an American is winning 23 singles majors, 14 in doubles, two in mixed doubles and four Olympic golds. The standard remains unchanged.
In this era of Me Too and George Floyd and kneeling, the judged are now talking, forcing The New York Times to answer for its headlines, process and execution of its stories. Justified or obnoxious or both, they mobilize on social media. They stay noisy. They make people reconsider, even if that reconsideration amounts to the Mark Knights of the world complaining that are being canceled while still firmly in control. Within this guilty backdrop is the USTA trying, late in the game, to make amends for how their greatest champion has been treated and aware of the predictable avalanche had they not appropriately celebrated her.
The week was completely overdone, and it is true that certain conversations cannot be had as they once were -- and even that in its odd way felt perversely appropriate. After years of underappreciation, an overcorrection was required to make things right -- especially here, home of the notorious 2009 fine, the hindrance call in the 2011 final against Samantha Stosur, the ugly meltdown against Osaka in the 2018 final where Serena could be heard saying something to the effect of "it's always something" with her and her home Slam.
It was an overcorrection that has been in the works since 2017, really, where the celebration of her as a mother came with the lucrative "This Mama Keeps Going" ad campaign from Chase in 2018, followed by a corporate machine that puts images and themes on repeat. Serena herself rarely passed up the chance to express the grievance of gender inequity, which allowed a certain constituency of white women and corporate America to claim her in this final third of her career in a way it did not for the overwhelming majority of it. She was free to advocate openly for women, to question the male double standards. She could publicly lament the unfair advantages of men, while remaining palatable to the white woman mainstream by avoiding loud and sustained public criticism of the advantage their whiteness has had over her. After years of distance, she had finally won over the white female constituency crucial to her commercial success. They, too, now were calling her "queen," and in return she did not call out their privileged double standards. There was no advantage to that. Doing so would have only reduced her -- as all Black people who do are -- back to just being angry. And she didn't have to. Her legions would do the heavy lifting of confirming her racial legacy for her so Serena wouldn't have to, as Gayle King did, while Serena just nodded and smiled. "She changed the hue of the game," King said after the Kovinic win. "She's changed the complexion of the game for those who play and those of us who watch it." While it is true that Serena empowered Black women, it is also true that the vocalness of Black women during this remarkable decade has in turn empowered her.
Thursday, Sept. 1 and Friday, Sept. 2: Game, Set, Match
In the news conference following her 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-1 victory over Serena, Ajla Tomljanovic was asked what it felt like to make history as the last player to beat Serena Williams. She smiled and said she had never been the answer to a trivia question before, and then added, "They'll probably get my name wrong."
Serena was still the show-stopper, the reason to be here. The only member of the nighttime sunglasses crowd to be booed when their face appeared on the big board was Ben Simmons. Large swaths of fans didn't know how to watch tennis, overrunning helpless volunteer ushers who tried to stop them from leaving or returning to their seats before changeovers, which occur every third game.
What Serena had done against Kontaveit turned getting to the second week into a real goal. The farewell talk could wait. It certainly felt as though it could be in the early moments of the match as Tomljanovic served up practice balls. She couldn't hurt Serena, and that felt like a throwback to when it was Williams who would decide the result.
The crowd thought big when Serena served for the first set, up 5-3. Then she lost four straight games and the set. She rebounded, as players unafraid of their opponents do, and quickly led 4-0, and then 5-2 in the second. Tomljanovic's 2-5 service game was a bruising, 15-minute, 24-point bout that featured four set points. Serena could convert none of them. The symbolism was apparent: This night was about the fighter, the reminder of who we've been watching all these years and why. Serena Williams the performer who wore her emotions publicly, who did not hide her anguish or her determination to win. Here, the other avatars receded -- and rose! -- as the tennis increased in intensity, for everyone may not understand tennis, but they understood fighting to survive. Like Sabalenka, Serena plays without pretense of reserve. There is no mask. She is human. This ability to perform, beyond the mundane functions of forehands and backhands, is what has made her a star. No one could take their eyes off of her.
Tomljanovic fought to 6-all. Serena ultimately won the set 7-4 in the tiebreak, and the match would go to a third set, but it was an example of winning the battle but losing the war. Tomljanovic trailed 4-0 but made Serena turn a romp into an 83-minute set -- and it drained her. After breaking to start the third, Serena bombed a 113 mph ace down the T, and then Tomljanovic couldn't return a 103 mph offering for 40-15, putting Serena a point away from a 2-0 lead. It was not my intention to pry, but the elated white woman sitting in front of me texted a friend in my line of sight:
"OMG OMG OMG OMG."
It was happening. The clock was turning back. Serena was finding the reserve, finding the magic, Connors-like, using the old skills to produce one last song to remember. I glanced at the clock behind the baseline and saw foreboding numbers. The match had now passed 2 hours, 30 minutes, and I began to wonder just how many more minutes a nearly 41-year-old could have left.
Then Tomljanovic won the next two points for deuce. Then she broke to tie the third at 1-1. The woman in front of me texted again:
"I'm on my fourth Grey Goose."
Upon entering Ashe, a sign just before the court entrance hangs on the sidewall that reads, "Pressure is a privilege," the famous quote from Billie Jean King, for whom the entire grounds are named. Before the match, Tomljanovic approached the sign and then placed her palm firmly on it. Like Kovinic and Kontaveit before her, she had no support. She was in the way, and it was not hyperbole to suggest these three women faced the most one-sided crowds in the history of the Open era. The Friday crowd was just as loud but not as politically intense as Wednesday, but Tomljanovic impeded Serena's path to the second week. The crowd did her no favors. A look ahead at the draw was even more tantalizing. If there was magic to be made, Serena could even play Gauff in the semifinal.
Now, nearly three hours in, it was clear Tomljanovic had embraced the fight, the challenge and her role. She responded by playing the match of her life -- a lament Serena die-hards have had for more than a decade. Osaka. Kerber. Stosur. Muguruza. Virginie Razzano. Now Tomljanovic. "Why does everyone play the match of their lives against Serena?" Serena herself would say it often: "I've had a target on my back for 20 years." The answer, of course, was obvious: because that's what it takes.
Tomljanovic broke Serena again for 3-1, then again for 5-1. Up 3-1, Tomljanovic hit a backhand winner and the crowd sensed the lights were flickering to a fade. With each point, the scoreboard was confirming their grave concerns. The crowd mood shifted to resignation and recrimination. The night before, Serena had played doubles with Venus, and the sisters lost in the first round, leaving it to wonder whether Serena would have had more fuel in the tank without having played doubles. The resounding standing ovation for Serena beginning Tomljanovic's 5-1 service game was not an exhortation to start another legendary comeback, to give Serena something to feed off of before the improbable last charge, but a final thanks. The greatest server in the history of the women's game had not held serve at all in the final set, despite leads of 40-15, 30-15 and 30-0 in her three service games. She had won the first game of the set, but now lost five in a row. The competitive portion of the past 27 years had certainly ended, and here was one last goodbye. Clean, beaten, honorable.
What followed next was off-script -- but completely on brand. Serena and Tomljanovic engaged in another marathon game, this one being 22 points over 14 minutes, the last stand something to remember. This was not going to be a sad, ignominious goodbye. Serena fought match point. Then again. And then again, and it was clear that she was, in the parlance of the Western, going to die with her boots on, unwilling to pass the torch but forcing Tomljanovic to come this far and have the goods to take it. Each point prolonged the match accepting the end. Another match point saved. She channeled Connors. This is what they came for. This is what they want.
Five times, Serena denied her fate. She was a point away from extending the match. Then Tomljanovic won the next two points for a sixth match point. Serena drove a forehand into the net, and it was over. At net, there was a handshake but no hug. No extended conversation. Serena gave her speech to a standing ovation and weeping fans. She spoke in third person. "There would be no Serena without Venus." Tomljanovic was gracious and respectful of a moment that was both hers and not. She played better than she ever had and would agree with the assessment in her postmatch comments.
As the on-court farewell subsided, it was quickly obvious. It was actually over. All of the strains of Serena's social significance had reached the same place, but there was always still tennis -- and now that was gone, too. Before the Kontaveit match, ESPN commentator Mary Joe Fernandez said she already had tears in her eyes because she wasn't ready to see it end. After the match, she asked Serena if she surprised herself by what she does. Serena laughed sarcastically, gave Fernandez an "Are you kidding?" look before saying, "I'm a pretty good player," then making it even more plain. "I'm just Serena."
It was in the Kontaveit match where the collective exhale finally came, the Tomljanovic match where all of the questions were finally answered, and it had to finally be said out loud: It was time. They had all come to see her and she had, once again, for her fans and for the tournament, delivered: different people, different strains, one cacophony. People had used the entire week to let it out. The numbers for the first eight days of the tournament reported record crowds -- as would the entire tournament by its end. The Tomljanovic match was the most-watched tennis match in the history of ESPN, peaking at 5 million viewers. In midtown, in the new headquarters for the Open, the InterContinental and Westin Hotels buzzed with tennis again, the numbers rose closer to pre-pandemic levels, fans roamed the lobby in their Serena gear, and on Saturday, the day after the match, talked about last night. Her tennis was finally over, and when she had left the stage, the suddenly electric, Nadal-defeating Tiafoe and the disappointed, still-ascending Gauff, part of the future of the American game and her legacy, kept her on that stage, using their dynamic second-week performances to talk about themselves and to talk about her. Even the heartbroken women's runner-up, Ons Jabeur, mentioned Serena after losing the championship to Iga Swiatek. It was kind and respectful -- and final. It was their turn now. The avatar had done enough.