TORONTO – Karl Hale has been the tournament director at the National Bank Open since 2006 and has never seen anything like the last 24 hours since Serena Williams said she was ending her professional tennis career.
“We heard it yesterday morning, and immediately sold tickets,” Hale said. “In the playroom, you heard the chatter. It’s the first time I’ve seen so many players watching practice. She was practicing at 9 in the morning, and everyone was out there watching her.”
Williams, who will play a second-round match against Belinda Bencic of Switzerland on Wednesday night, could be playing for the last time in front of Canadian tennis players at this tournament.
“But I hope not,” said Hale, who has known Serena and her sister Venus for more than 20 years since they started coming to Toronto.
Williams’ farewell tour is on its way, started by as-said-to Vogue cover story for the September issue that was published online on Tuesday and titled “Serena’s Goodbye.” Williams wrote that she planned to retire from tennis at some point after a minimum playing in the US Openwhich begins on August 29.
“I’m developing away from tennis, to other things that are important to me,” including working with her venture capital firm and raising her family, she said.
“I’m going to enjoy these next few weeks,” Williams wrote on Instagram.
The National Bank Open is the only Canadian stop for the WTA and ATP tours each August, splitting the men’s and women’s events between Toronto and Montreal and alternating the cities each year. Suddenly, Williams’ match Wednesday night in Toronto became the hottest ticket in sports.
Hale said that after the retirement news broke, the tournament sold more tickets for the Williams-Bencic showdown than it has for any of its men’s matches, notable for a tournament that began in 1881, making it almost as old as Canada itself. . (Canada was founded in 1867, and the women’s tournament began in 1892.)
The 32-match tournament has also become a bigger draw than the entire women’s tournament of 2017, he said.
Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player of all time, immediately got in touch, sending a video wishing the greatest women’s tennis player well. Another video is expected to arrive from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, both of which will be shown in a pre-match celebration of Williams, her career and her time in Canada.
Hale was buried in interview requests for Williams — the answer was “no” — and requests for tickets from athletes, musicians and actors currently filming movies in the city — the answer was “yes,” to a point.
“We have no space left,” said Hale.
“It’s going to be a really emotional night for her,” he said. “She’s not sure how to handle it, but it will really hit the spot before the match.”
He said the plan was for Williams not to see the video messages but to go to the court only after a standing ovation because he didn’t want to distract her from the match.
The stadium north of the city center will pack 10,000 fans, and the tournament is setting up an outdoor viewing area – for the first time – for an additional 5,000 people.
Hale had a four-hour dinner at Harbor 60, an expensive Toronto steakhouse, with Serena and Venus Williams on Saturday night.
“She didn’t tell me the Vogue article was coming, but she said retirement was imminent,” he said. “All signs definitely pointed to a US Open retirement. She’s really ready to move forward with the next chapter of her new life. She’s excited, she’s not sad, but she’s going to be very, very emotional tonight. I don’t think it’s yet hit her.”
During her straight sets win over Spain’s Nuria Parrizas-Diaz on Monday, much of the crowd was on their feet and bowing to Williams.
After the match, Williams telegraphed the Vogue article that was hours from falling, saying that she was getting “closer to the light” and “freedom”.
She’s clearly having fun. On the weekend before the tournament began, she and her husband, Alexis Ohanian, and their daughter, Olympia, went to Medieval Times, the theater show with crowns and swords. Then on Monday, she won, for the first time in over a year. “I forgot what it felt like,” she said.
It was the first time Olympia had sat through a full match, and she brought her mother down — some move when you’re 4 — after her win. “I was very excited,” Williams said. “It was good for her to have that memory. She never had it because I always kept her away.”
Andreescu, who went on to beat Williams in the 2019 US Open finalRecalled her emotional post-match bond with Williams following her straight-sets win over Russia’s Daria Kasatkina on Tuesday night.
“In Toronto, we had a nice conversation, and at the US Open she said some very nice things to me in the locker room,” Andreescu said. She added that she felt “grateful to have the opportunity to play her and connect with her in some way. Maybe I’ll get one more.”
As Williams closes out his career, a scarcity mentality sets in. Only a handful of tickets for Wednesday’s match were listed with resellers, suggesting that what could be Williams’ final Canadian match is not for sale at any price.
Williams’ teammates on the tour also fear they will miss out. Coco Gauff, Emma Raducanu and Canadians Leylah Fernandez, Rebecca Marino and Carol Zhao have never played against Williams and wistfully said they hope to share the court with her before it’s too late.
Williams won that tournament three times, all in Toronto.
“It was like, okay, I want to play a few more matches,” she said Monday. “And I absolutely love playing here. It’s no secret that I’ve had a fabulous time on court and probably an even better time off court here in Toronto.”
Depending on how she fares against 12th-ranked Bencic, the spotlight and the crowd will continue to follow Williams from here to Cincinnati, and on to New York, where she won her first Grand Slam singles title in 1999 as a 17-year-old .
Marino said it was fitting that Williams would at least play again at the US Open and that it would make a perfect farewell to the sport. “That’s, I think, the place to do it,” she said.