Serena Williams’ US Open goodbye will be a swan song to savor

By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist

It was impossible to read the essay that amounted to Serena Williams’ goodbye to tennis and not imagine a fitting finale, a triumphant scene at the US Open next month in which she hoists the trophy, equals the all-time Grand Slam singles record, and waltzes off into the rest of her life.

For that to happen would require a nostalgic and emotional trip for the ages, seven victories on the hard courts of Flushing Meadows, as the sporting public loses its collective mind. 

If Williams racks up enough wins to take her into the last weekend of the tournament, a journey filled with escalating anticipation and building in momentum all the while, it will become the story of the New York sports summer, even with Kevin Durant agitating and football season fast approaching.

It’s almost certainly not going to go down that way.

When sporting greats stick around long enough, we lose a sense of reality about what they’re capable of accomplishing. When they’ve achieved the implausible so many times before, not even the most preposterous of targets seem beyond them any longer.

You don’t need to have watched the recent movie “King Richard” to know it was a drastic leap from the established order for a pair of young Black girls from Compton, Calif. — Williams and her older sister Venus — to enter a sport synonymous with country club sheen and collect a ridiculous 30 Grand Slams singles titles between them.

Serena Williams is responsible for 23 of that tally, the first coming in a different millennium, at the 1999 US Open. She currently stands one behind Margaret Court on the all-time list, though 11 of Court’s titles came in the Australian Open, during a time when that tournament was not frequently attended by the world’s best.

It is where, barring some kind of fantastical miracle, she will remain, combined with the status of the finest women’s player of all time and a trailblazing story to go along with it.

As much as the fan base would love one more run, it is too much to ask. Williams will turn 41 next month, has been a mother for nearly five years and has a quarter-century of tennis tiredness in her legs.

She’s up against younger, fresher, fitter women, who are able to put in the kind of punishing training schedule that Williams once undertook. Not even her talent, all that knowledge and experience, and her trademark determination are enough to overcome such obstacles any longer.

On Wednesday, Williams lost 6-2, 6-4 to Belinda Bencic, the world No. 12, in the second round of the National Bank Open in Toronto. “I am terrible at goodbyes,” she told the crowd. “But goodbye, Toronto.”

A few more weeks, and it will be goodbye to tennis, permanently. 

Williams is ranked No. 407 in the world, primarily because this is the first ranking point tournament she’s played since last year’s Wimbledon. Her sole victory in that time came against Nuria Párrizas-Díaz in the first round this week.

She fights as hard as ever, and you can never utterly dismiss such a champion, but the point of this is to say that what’s happened already is enough.

The fantasy of the ideal farewell is ours, not hers. Williams made this much clear in her essay in Vogue magazine. Mentally, she has already moved on. She talks about evolving away from tennis, but the evolution is already well underway.

She wishes to have more children and laments that a male athlete at a similar age would not worry that such desires would end his career. She has business interests and big ideas and family things to attack with gusto, because that’s how she lives.

She’s already fought the battle with age that every athlete must cope with sooner or later. For the most part, she categorically won it. Starting with the 2014 US Open, right when doubts about her continued viability at the very top were starting to surface, Williams went on a Grand Slam tear, winning six of the next 10 and never failing to reach at least the semis.

It will probably remain a source of frustration that she didn’t blast past Court’s number when she had the opportunity. In 2018 and 2019 she reached four Slam finals and was favored to win each of them, but came up short — losing to Angelique Kerber and Simona Halep at Wimbledon and Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu in New York.

“The way I see it, I should have had 30-plus Grand Slams,” she told Vogue. “I had my chances after coming back from giving birth … but I didn’t get there.”

That might be the closest we will ever get to Williams admitting she doesn’t expect to win the US Open this year.

The best of athletes, in most cases, last for longer these days. At the start of Williams’ career, the mid-20s was seen as a veteran. Along with the men’s Big Three of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, she has defiantly reshaped that perception.

She has redefined the sport in ways beyond that, too, making a stand for women athletes and keeping tennis in the American spotlight during a time when the country’s dominance has dwindled.

The Hollywood ending is not going to come because the Hollywood story has already been written. At some point over the coming weeks, the final shot will be hit.

A career, statistically speaking, will end with a defeat. But will be remembered, forever, as a triumph.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. You can subscribe to the daily newsletter here.

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