Serena Williams’s Magical Last Week in Tennis

Serena Williams left the Lotte New York Palace Hotel on Madison Avenue and folded herself into the back seat of a dark green Lincoln Navigator. She arrived at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center about 15 minutes later. Traffic’s bearable on Saturday mornings.

Her five-person, one-dog entourage convened on Practice Court 1. With more weariness than joy in her face, and a bit of a gimpy shuffle in her step, she set down her orange bag. It held a Ziploc bag filled with clean socks and a pink skirt to wear after practice. She checked her phone, in a black case with an “SW” pop socket. Her black Nikes had a gold “SW,” too. She wore a wedding ring, the stone the size of a meatball.

Sometime soon — maybe a couple of days, maybe two weeks — her tennis career would end. But not yet. There was one more tournament: the U.S. Open.

A trainer smeared sunscreen on her face, then helped her warm up with elastic bands and stretches. There was little small talk.

Would she miss mornings like this?

“Honestly, I can’t wait to wake up one day and literally never have to worry about performing on such a high level and competing,” she had told Meghan Markle — yeah, the Duchess of Sussex and a good friend — on a podcast days before the tournament. “I’ve actually never felt that.”

She began swatting balls to her hitting partner. Whatever morning and middle-age lethargy she had soon disappeared in an arsenal of sharp forehands and two-handed backhands.

She was nearly ready. Serena glowed in sweat.

Let’s agree to call her Serena, because only chair judges call her Williams. To fans at the U.S. Open, “Serena” was her last name and her first name was “C’mon.”

The story started last month, when Vogue magazine published an essay in which Serena said she was “evolving away from tennis” to grow her businesses and her family.

“I have never liked the word retirement,” she wrote. “It doesn’t feel like a modern word to me.’”

Immediately, stories were written about her career and legacy, almost as if she had died. In New York, plans for a proper send-off were jump-started. The U.S. Open made a plan: Turn Serena’s opening match into a prime-time celebration. Fill Arthur Ashe Stadium with celebrities and a record crowd. Create videos narrated by Oprah Winfrey and Queen Latifah. Cue the tears.

But then Serena invited herself back to play another night, and another, and another.

At almost 41, she whipped shots and chased balls as if birthed from a time capsule. Then along came momentum, the elixir of the sports gods.

Was Serena surprised? Hardly.

“I’m just Serena,” she said, as good an explanation as any.

And this is Serena’s New York story, seven days and a career in the making.

As Serena practiced the weekend before the celebration, the most experienced member of Serena’s on-court entourage was Chip, a Yorkshire terrier and Toto replica, jaunty with a bow tie around his neck.

But the rest of the crew came to Serena’s circle only in her twilight. It included coach Eric Hechtman, hitting partner Jarmere Jenkins, trainers Kristy Stahr and Derick Pierson (who doubled as Chip’s handler), and recent addition Rennae Stubbs, a multiple Grand Slam winner in doubles, bringing experience and levity.

As Serena warmed up in the cool of morning, there were few witnesses. But a few feet behind Serena, hidden behind the blue gauze that covered the chain-link fence, a 36-year-old Black woman and tournament volunteer named Jessica Wynne pantomimed Serena’s steps and swings. She danced to Serena’s on-court rhythm.

Wynne tried to commit Williams’ movements to muscle memory and she recorded them on her phone. She wanted to show the moves to her 6-year-old twins, a boy and girl, back home in Michigan, just learning to play tennis. She considers Serena the greatest athlete ever.

“No one has had more pressure on her,” Wynne said. “No one has grown with more grace. It doesn’t mean that she’s more than a person. She’s not. She’s not a superhero.”

Soon the gates to the tennis center opened to the public. People ran — ran — to find Serena, like the early arrivals at Disneyland who sprint to be first on Space Mountain. They crowded into the bleachers and stuffed themselves behind the fence near Wynne. They nudged one another to celebrate their communal good fortune in doing nothing more than being somewhat close to Serena Williams.

The fans were a full spectrum of ages and races. That’s New York. That’s Serena. There might be no athlete, ever, as popular with such a patchwork of humanity.

“This is her! This is her!” a 37-year-old New Yorker named Randy Cline said in whispered excitement. He pogoed up and down.

He and his wife pressed their four children, ages, 9 months to 12 years, close to the fence.

“You don’t usually get this close to greatness,” Cline said. “I’m just absorbing it. I hope my kids are absorbing it.”

The concrete-block corridor outside the players’ locker room is lined with framed photos of former champions. Serena resides in glossy color between Roger Federer, in a graceful follow through, and her sister Venus, smiling while holding the U.S. Open trophy.

Serena is frozen in full grimace, teeth bared and white beads flying in her braided hair. The photo was from her first U.S. Open title, at 17. It marked her arrival, as a player and a presence.

A few feet away, the real 40-year-old Serena was laughing with Taylor Townsend, a Black player in her 20s.

How many of today’s players, of tomorrow’s players, owe something — inspiration, belief, a less-rocky ride — to Serena Williams? There would be plenty of tennis players if she never existed, but would they be these tennis players?

Ten of the top 30 Americans in the latest women’s singles rankings are Black or biracial, none of them named Williams.

“Sometimes being a woman, a black woman in the world, you kind of settle for less,” Coco Gauff, the 18-year-old American, said. “I feel like Serena taught me that, from watching her, she never settled for less.”

It was the day before the tournament began. Townsend teased Williams for not returning text messages. Serena apologized and laughed, hard, something she does more often the farther she is from a camera lens.

Iga Swiatek, the world’s top-ranked player, a 21-year-old from Poland, spotted her. She was nervous. The two had never met, largely because Swiatek was intimidated by Serena.

“I wanted to say ‘Hi’ a few times, but it’s tough because she always has so many people around her and I’m pretty shy,” Swiatek had said a couple of weeks earlier. “And when I look at her, I suddenly kind of forget that I’m here as the world No. 1. I see Serena and it’s, ‘Wow, Serena.’ You know?”

Chances were running out. Swiatek made her move.

“So I finally found the courage and this happened,” she wrote on Instagram, with a photo of Swiatek and Serena with their arms around each other. “Congratulations on your amazing journey and legendary career.”

The Williams sisters were outsiders, in obvious ways — Black girls from the public courts of Compton, crashing a cotillion of a sport. Their tennis success was filled with the “buts” of detractors — but the braids, but the clothes, but the muscles, but the outbursts.

They were human Rorschach tests. The world projected and exposed its own biases onto Venus, then Serena. Venus knocked down doors; Serena barged through. She was the bigger, brasher and ultimately more successful one on the court.

“I think people could feel my confidence, because I was always told, ‘You look great. Be Black and be proud,’” she told Time magazine in a cover story before the tournament.

She also helped usher in a new era of athlete — the icon, the mogul, the brand. Like top athletes of this age, she maintains a curated persona, keeping a bit of glossy distance from those who cheer her. It is telling, of course, that her retirement/evolution was announced in her own words in a cover story for Vogue.

Before the tournament, Serena rang the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange, alongside business partner Alison Rapaport Stillman, representing Serena Ventures, a venture-capital firm focused on minority businesses. She wore a dress that she later sold at her clothing company, S by Serena, for $109. Later she promoted her first children’s book “The Adventures of Qai Qai.”

It was almost as if she was in New York for the next phase, not the last phase.

And then she took the court.

Arthur Ashe Stadium buzzed like a hive. It was the last Monday night of August, maybe the last singles match for Serena. Dusk settled, bringing the anticipatory air of a prize fight and a record-setting U.S. Open crowd of 29,402.

There were celebrities everywhere: Mike Tyson. Hugh Jackman. Queen Latifah. Former President Bill Clinton. Spike Lee, predictably. Dr. Ruth, less so.

But the most important witness, at least to Serena, was in the players’ box in the northeast corner. Her daughter Olympia, three days shy of her fifth birthday, wore a miniature version of the black dress that her mother wore on the court.

A poignant ode to Olympia’s mother dangled in her hair. It was braided and held strings of white beads. They were a symbolic bookend to Serena’s career.

“It was either her wear beads or me,” Serena said. “I wanted to do it, but I just didn’t have the time.”

Danka Kovinic, a 27-year-old tour veteran from Montenegro, ranked 80th in the world, had the fortune, good or bad, of drawing Serena in the first round. She was introduced first, to polite applause, then sat in her courtside chair and waited.

And waited.

First came a video tribute for Serena that brought fans to their feet. Then came Serena, racket bag over her shoulder, water bottle in her hand, buds in her ears that muffled the roar of the crowd.

She wore a cape-like jacket and black Nike shoes with diamond-encrusted swooshes. The laces on her right shoe had an ornamental tag that said “Mama.” The left shoe said “Queen.”

Once play began, Serena got the first big ooh-aah-ovation when she lunged to scoop a Kovinic drop shot, deftly volleyed at the net, and then dropped back, with the movement of a dancer, to smack a sidearm winner.

The play was at turns stirring and shaky, never uninspired. There was no sense that Serena was in a hurry or wanted to be anywhere else.

It was sometimes quiet enough to hear the 7 train rattle nearby. It was sometimes so loud “I could feel it in my chest,” Serena said.

Kovinic did not shrink from the moment. But the whole thing — Serena, the atmosphere — wore her down.

When Serena won match point, she ran in place, overjoyed and relieved. Kovinic slipped out of sight. Serena was directed to stay. A post-match celebration had been planned, win or lose, without her knowledge.

Olympia came to the court, in the arms of her father, Alexis Ohanian. There was Oracene Price, the mother of Venus and Serena, and Isha, one of their sisters.

Billie Jean King, a spry 78, told of meeting Venus and Serena at a camp in Long Beach, Calif., when they were 7 and 6. She remembered fawning over Serena’s service motion that day.

“Her serve is by far the most beautiful serve in the history of our sport,” King said.

There was a video narrated by Oprah Winfrey. Then Serena took the microphone, moved by the moment.

“Sometimes I think it’s harder to walk away than not,” she said.

On Wednesday, the day before Olympia’s fifth birthday, she was in the players’ lounge on her father’s lap.

“Tickle me, tickle me, tickle me!” she begged, and when he did, she squealed. She wore a sweatshirt from her mother’s collection that read “GOAT.” Nearby, Oracene wore one, too.

Out the windows to the west, on the practice courts, Serena warmed up in the final strips of sunlight. Fans crowded around, but the mood was muted compared to Monday — less anxious, less celebratory. At the main doors to Ashe Stadium, there was no blue carpet. The phalanx of paparazzi was gone.

Serena’s ranking was deep in the hundreds when she made the “evolution” announcement. Expectations in New York were muted. The U.S. Open would be a celebration, and probably a short one.

But Serena had a secret.

Despite not playing for most of a year and losing in the first round at Wimbledon and early in two August tournaments, she had privately practiced well all summer.

And she had experience. A 41-0 career record in the first two rounds of the U.S. Open. A home-court advantage unlike any other. And confidence. Always confidence.

Kontaveit felt the brunt of all that on Wednesday night.

The match sizzled from the start. Serena won the first set in a tiebreaker. Kontaveit broke her serve to start the second set, and stayed stout to send it to a third.

The chair umpire routinely had to hush fans who shouted “I love you, Serena!” between points or murmured in excitement when Kontaveit missed a first serve. The rules of decorum stretched, all in Serena’s direction.

Tiger Woods, his cap spun backward, cheered her on. Venus was two seats away. Behind them was Anna Wintour, the Vogue editor, with her bob and saucer-sized sunglasses.

Serena seized control and finished off a victory, 7-6 (4), 2-6, 6-2. Along the way, the celebratory mood shifted into an expectant one.

The bracket showed that she would not play another seeded opponent before the quarterfinals, if she advanced that far.

Serena described the “big red ‘X’ on my back” since first winning the Open. She spent parts of four decades trying to uphold a standard that she created. No more.

“I don’t have anything to prove, I don’t have anything to win,” she said on court after the match. “And I have absolutely nothing to lose.”

It was Serena’s idea to play doubles with her sister again. If this truly was her last spin in tennis, it felt right to do it alongside her sister.

Maybe there was magic left in the partnership. They were 14-time Grand Slam champions, never losing a final. Now they were a wild-card entry, added just before the tournament, infusing it with another titillating dose of Williams.

The opening match against Lucie Hradecka and Linda Noskova of the Czech Republic, playing together for the first time, was placed in prime time at Ashe Stadium, in front of another sellout crowd.

Serena walked out first, in a black skirt and black T-shirt. Venus, 42, as statuesque as ever, wore a green and white outfit and white visor. After each point, they slapped hands or fist-bumped, and then whispered strategy to one another while covering their mouths — afraid of doubles-hacking lip readers.

At the net, Serena showed off her fast reflexes. Venus loped along the baseline chasing shots.

But they lost a first-set tiebreaker, then fell behind quickly in the second set. Mistakes piled up. The crowd deadened. The sisters grinded back to 4-all, but lost the match on Serena’s serve.

Venus and Serena embraced. In a moment, they were gone to an appreciative ovation — Venus with a quick wave, Serena without. And soon after that, they were driven back to Manhattan, separately.

This is where things began to turn. And this is where you will hear an answer to a Serena-specific trivia question, and you may have to double-check the spelling: Ajla Tomljanovic.

“No one’s going to pronounce my name right,” she said later. “That’s going to suck.”

For the third match in a row, Serena was pitted against a veteran opponent in her late 20s whom she had never played before. They were character actors plucked into starring roles in Serena’s big-budget production.

Dusk came, the stadium filled and Serena came out in her caped robe, like a boxer. The scoreboards flashed GREATEST OF ALL TIME and only if you like underdogs did you like how this ended.

The match was great theater, a passion play lasting more than three hours. Tomljanovic was as steady as a ball machine, set on high.

She has been playing Grand Slams for 10 seasons and has never been ranked higher than No. 38. Playing in a floral dress and a red visor, she found that she could match Serena from the baseline, stroke for stroke.

She received unexpected help from an unlikely source — Serena’s serve. Tomljanovic broke Serena three times while winning the first set. The crowd whipsawed from frenzy to disappointment, sometimes on the same long point.

Serena nearly gave the set away after going up 5-2, but rescued it in a tiebreaker. But something was gone. Soon it would be Serena.

The key number from the match was six. It was fitting, since that is how many times Serena has won the U.S. Open.

Serena lost the last six games of the match. But on the way out, she fought off six match points. She ran and chased until she was out of breath. She backhanded and forehanded and overhanded and tried to fit a life’s worth of highlights into her final encore.

It was 10:22 p.m. when she fired a forehand return, hammered another forehand, and then — in her final shot, moving forward just inside the baseline — hit one more, this time into the net.

The crowd groaned, then stood and cheered. The ball rolled past Serena as she reached to shake Tomljanovic’s hand. Serena moved toward her bag, instinctively, then backed onto the court to wave in every direction. Tomljanovic applauded, too.

“When it ended, it almost didn’t feel right,” she said.

Serena was pulled into an on-court interview with Mary Joe Fernandez. That is where she thanked her aging father, Richard Williams, who has not traveled in years. “Thank you, Daddy. I know you’re watching,” she said.

Serena looked to the players’ box and thanked her mom, and the last vestiges of her trademark on-court toughness melted away. She was no superhero. She was just a person.

“Oh, my God,” she said. “These are happy tears, I guess. I don’t know.”

And then she called out Venus.

“And I wouldn’t be Serena if there wasn’t Venus, so thank you, Venus,” she said. “She’s the only reason that Serena Williams ever existed.”

Then she thanked the fans, all the ones who told her to “go” or to “c’mon” or who just lived their lives quietly inspired by this girl from Compton.

“You got me here,” she said.

Here did not last long. Soon she was gone to there, wherever there is, out of the lights and into whatever comes next.