Serena Williams went out the same way she came in: fighting

As Serena Williams stood one tiebreak away from her demise in the second set of the breathless, unforgettable final match of her career, a deafening wall of noise on Arthur Ashe Stadium punctuated every minor victory she achieved. She had led 5-3 in the first set, only for her lead to crumble. When she established a 5-2 lead in the second set, her four set points evaporated in a flash. Each time she came close, she was arrested by tension, rust, nerves.

Nothing went her way, but Willams did what she has done for 27 years: she fought. She tore into forehands, her loud, piercing grunts following every act. She desperately sprinted for every last ball, she pumped her fists and hollered at herself in encouragement. Somehow, she dragged herself over the line in the second set tiebreak, crunching a searing forehand winner off a 20-shot rally, engineering one of her final moments of defiance.

In the end, it was not enough. Williams’ final iconic win was to be two days earlier against second seed, Anett Kontaveit, in her second-round match. But across the final three hours and five minutes she spent on court as a professional tennis player, as she succumbed to Ajla Tomljanović, 7-5, 6-7(4), 6-1, every last second of that moment was spent desperately searching for a way through.

Her final vanquisher, Tomljanović, is a much improved Croatian-born Australian player who has spent most of her career ranked between around 38 and 80. There are no parallels to the noise, the spectacle and the drama that has marked every night of Williams’ Arthur Ashe residence, but Tomljanović has had more experience with wildly partisan crowds than most after grinding Emma Raducanu into submission in the fourth round of Wimbledon last year.

But that was Court One at Wimbledon against a novice and this was a sold-out Arthur Ashe Stadium against the player she had grown up admiring. From the beginning, though, she was ready. She started the match by thumping a forehand down the line winner off a Williams first serve, and it set the tone for the supreme opposition she marked herself as. She was a wall, soaking up every ounce of pace provided by Williams, deflecting everything down the middle with immaculate depth while attacking every short ball.

Yet, for large parts, Williams was even better. The contrast between inconsistent Williams on opening night and early on Friday was stark. For much of the match, she was sharp, moving her feet, attacking the ball freely, sweeping forward without a second of hesitation. She had everything in her game to seal the victory and carry on this crazy ride, but in the most important moments, her lack of match fitness and the weight of this occasion came back to her. She just could not find her nerve.

Serena Williams and Ajla Tomljanović
Serena Williams and Ajla Tomljanović went toe to toe for more than three hours on Friday night. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

As she tried, the crowd was present throughout. They gave standing ovations merely after successful breaks, they roared during and after points. They were the audience that Williams deserved as she made her last stand. Tomljanović served for the match at 5-1 and she arrived at match point, but it would not be over another 15 minutes. Each time she reached match point, Williams rose up and eviscerated the ball, holding off retirement for a little longer. It was so typical. Five match points came and went, but she could only delay the inevitable.

Just for a few fleeting moments, when she was in full flow early on, it was hard not to imagine just how long she might extend this run for. But there are no fairytales here. Instead, the final stage of Williams’ career has represented something far more meaningful. Williams played on after so many believed that her interests lay elsewhere. She has outlasted every single one of her contemporaries, aside from her sister, Venus, by well over a decade. She has won grand slam matches in her teens, 20s, 30s and now 40s. There is no greater expression of her love for the sport than how long she stayed and many times she came back. She played on till the end, the very end.

In her post-match interview with Mary Joe Fernandez, Williams cried as she thanked the people around her and saluted Venus, the other half of one of the greatest sports stories there will ever be: “I wouldn’t be Serena if there wasn’t Venus, so thank you, Venus,” she said. Even as she departed, though, she couldn’t fully let go. Asked if she would ever reconsider her decision to retire, she wavered: “I don’t think so, but you never know. I don’t know.”

As she fought desperately in those final moments, a memory that came to mind was one of the very first – 1998, when Williams arrived in Australia for her first full tennis season aged just 16. She was ranked just 96th then, playing in the third WTA main draw of her life. As white and yellow beads threaded into her tidy braids, she trailed the great Lindsay Davenport 6-1, 5-2 in their quarter-final after coming through qualifying.

But Serena was not finished. Bit by bit, with bursts of athleticism and attack, she punctuated her victorious shots with clenched fists and cries of “Yes!” as she overturned the deficit to win 1-6, 7-5, 7-5.

That was the first comeback of Williams’ career, and in the 24 years since, everything has changed yet nothing at all. She has gone from zero titles to 23 grand slams, she has spent 319 weeks at No 1 and conquered the world in singles and doubles. She has taken the sport of tennis to a level that no other woman has reached. But the image she projected when she arrived is the same that she departs with: the grit, the passion, the glorious sight of Serena Williams in the heat of battle, desperately fighting until the end.