As a champion who says she hates goodbyes, Serena Williams could have made her exit from tennis differently.
In a news story or Instagram post; through a post-match interview or simply leaving and staying away without formalizing her farewell.
Instead, by making it clear this week that the end is very near, Williams has given herself and her vast audience some runway to do the job right, an extended — but not too extended — chance to do justice to Williams’ long and phenomenal career. .
“Enjoy every match,” said Tracy Austin, the former No. 1 turned television analyst.
The first chance came in Toronto on a warm Wednesday night in a packed stadium against a tough and experienced opponent, Belinda Bencic, whose fluid, counter-attacking game unsurprisingly proved too much for the 40-year-old Williams.
Bencic closed out the win, 6-2, 6-4, in the second round of the National Bank Open, but it was, as Bencic correctly pointed out, not really about the result on Wednesday. It was about the occasion.
Although on-court interviews are usually the realm of the winner, Bencic quickly and elegantly stepped aside after her victory and ceded the stage and the microphone to Williams.
“It was a lot of emotions,” Williams said as the tears started to come. “Obviously I love playing here, and I’ve always loved playing here. I wish I could have played better, but Belinda played so well today. But it’s just, yeah, it’s been a pretty interesting 24 hours.”
First of all, it has been a fascinating 27 years since Williams first played in Canada. She launched her professional career in 1995 at the Bell Challenge, a now-defunct tournament in Quebec City, making that debut at the age of 14 in part to avoid becoming subject to age restrictions that the women’s tour was soon to impose.
She lost in the first round of qualifying against the American Annie Miller, then ranked 149th in the world, but that was hardly foreshadowing. Williams became the greatest women’s player of the 21st century and joined the very short list of the most successful players of all time along with Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Margaret Court.
Williams has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, one short of Court’s record, and has won 50 other tour singles titles, including three at the Canadian Open in 2001, 2011 and 2013.
There would be no fourth title in Canada, but that was no obstacle to her generating much excitement and emotion as she played her last professional match there.
Williams announced her impending retirement – she intends to play through the US Open – in a moving manner first person essay in Vogue that was published on Tuesday. That was the day after she won her first singles match in over a year in the opening round in Toronto, defeating Nuria Parrizas-Diaz of Spain.
The buzz built quickly ahead of Williams’ second-round duel with Bencic.
Karl Hale, the tournament director at the National Bank Open since 2006, said that after the retirement news broke, the tournament sold more tickets for the Williams-Bencic showdown than it had for any of its men’s matches, notable for a tournament which began in 1881, making it almost as old as Canada itself. (Canada was founded in 1867, and the women’s tournament began in 1892.)
“In the playroom, you heard the chatter. It’s the first time I’ve seen so many players watch practice,” Hale said of Williams’ practice on Tuesday. “She was practicing at 9 in the morning, and everyone was out there watching her.”
On Wednesday night, the stadium north of downtown packed 12,500 fans, and the tournament would set up an outdoor viewing area – for the first time – for another 5,000. Williams’ husband, Alexis Ohanian, and their daughter, Olympia, 4, watched from the stands.
Before Williams took the court – which she did with bowed head and serious expression – video with greetings by the retired champion Billie Jean King and some rising stars on the tour, Coco Gauff, Leylah Fernandez and Bianca Andreescu, played for the crowd. Wayne Gretzky, the Canadian who was one of the greatest players in hockey history, had a closing message for his counterpart.
“Serena Williams, Willie O’Ree in hockey, Jackie Robinson in baseball,” Gretzky said. “They changed everything. They changed the culture of sports, and what Serena has done for boys and girls around the world is spectacular. Serena, congratulations on a wonderful career.”
The crowd wanted Williams to win, and during the match it often felt like everyone was trying to will her to victory. The upset – and often disruptive shouts from the stands – could easily have struck a lesser, more inexperienced player, but Bencic, a 25-year-old Swiss star, handled the moment with aplomb. She is at her best on hard courts with her fine-tuned game and exquisite timing, on display again when she redirected Williams’ still impressive power with half volleys from the baseline and forecourt. Bencic won the Olympic gold medal in singles last year in Tokyo, and back in 2015 she lamented Williams in Toronto in the semifinals on her way to winning the women’s singles title at age 18.
Williams had won their three previous matches. Although both women have had to battle injuries in recent years, much has changed since Williams defeated Bencic in three sets in the Hopman Cup team event in 2019.
While Bencic has reestablished herself as a consistent threat and is ranked No. 12, Williams, ranked 407th, played relatively little and missed a year of action before returning to Wimbledon in July, where she. lost in the first round to Harmony Tan, an unranked Frenchwoman.
Wednesday’s match was just Williams’ third singles match in the last 14 months. She, of course, is still finding her range and is no longer able to move to the corners or find the lines on the run like she did in her prime. But when in position, she still has the power and ball-striking skills to do considerable damage, and she sometimes clicked into higher gears against Bencic without summoning the consistency to really threaten her opponent.
The floor, if not the match, was soon hers.
“It was so memorable,” Williams said, her voice cracking, as she addressed the sold-out crowd. “As I said in my article, I’m terrible at goodbyes, but goodbye – .”
She waited a beat and then added, “Toronto.”
Other emotional farewells await: at the West & South Open next week in the suburbs of Cincinnati and then, if desired, at the US Open in New York that begins on August 29.
“These are all building blocks for New York,” she said new coach, Eric Hechtman. “And that being said, she’s not just appearing as a farewell tour. Today we could see levels of play that are championship levels, and I really believe she has that gear in her, and I know she believes it too.
Shawna Richer contributed reporting from Toronto.