Williams begins the not-too-long goodbye
By Christopher Clarey
As a champion who says she hates goodbyes, Serena Williams could have made her exit from tennis in other ways.
In a news release or Instagram post; by post-match interview or by simply walking away and staying away without formalizing her farewell.
Instead, by making it plain this week that the end is very near, Williams has given herself and her vast public some runway to do the job just right, an extended — but not too extended — opportunity to do justice to Williams’ long and phenomenal career.
“Savor 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 flowing, counterpunching game unsurprisingly proved too much for the 40-year-old Williams.
Bencic closed out the victory, 6-2, 6-4, in the second round of the National Bank Open, but it was, as Bencic rightly pointed out, not really about the result 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 just, yeah, it’s been a pretty interesting 24 hours.”
It has been above all, a fascinating 27 years since Williams first played in Canada. She launched her pro career in 1995 at the Bell Challenge, a now-defunct tournament in Quebec City, making that debut at age 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 to American Annie Miller, then ranked 149th in the world, but that was hardly foreshadowing. Williams has gone on to become the greatest women’s player of the 21st century and join the very short list of the most successful players of all time alongside 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 impediment to her generating plenty of excitement and emotion as she played her last professional match there.
Williams announced her impending retirement — she intends to play through the U.S. Open — in a poignant first-person essay in Vogue that was published Tuesday. That was the day after she won her first singles match in more than 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 that began in 1881, making it almost as old as Canada itself. (Canada was founded in 1867, and the women’s tournament started in 1892.)
“In the players’ lounge, you heard the chatter. It’s the first time I’ve seen so many players watch a practice,” Hale said of Williams’ practice Tuesday. “She practiced at 9 a.m., and everybody was out there watching her.”
On Tuesday night, the stadium north of downtown packed in 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.
Ahead of Williams’ taking the court — which she did with a bowed head and a serious expression — a video with greetings from 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 did for boys and girls throughout the world is spectacular. Serena, congratulations on a wonderful career.”
The crowd wanted Williams to win, and throughout the match it often felt as if everyone was trying to will her to victory. The hoopla — and often-disruptive shouts from the stands — could easily have rattled a lesser, more inexperienced player, but Bencic, a 25-year-old Swiss star, handled the moment with aplomb. She is at her best on hardcourts with her finely tuned game and exquisite timing, on display again as she redirected Williams’ still-formidable 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 upset 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 contend with 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, has played comparatively little and missed a year of action before returning for Wimbledon in July, where she lost in the first round to Harmony Tan, an unseeded Frenchwoman.
Wednesday’s match was only Williams’ third singles match in the past 14 months. She is, understandably, still finding her range and is no longer able to move to the corners or find the lines on the run as she did in her prime. But when in position, she still has the power and ball-striking skills to do considerable damage, and she occasionally clicked into higher gears against Bencic without summoning the consistency to genuinely threaten her opponent.
The floor, if not the match, was soon hers, however.
“It’s just been so memorable,” Williams said, her voice cracking, as she addressed the sellout crowd. “Like I said in my article, I’m terrible at goodbyes, but goodbye — .”
She waited a beat and then added, “Toronto.”
Other emotional adieus await: at the Western & Southern Open next week in the Cincinnati suburbs and then, body and spirit willing, at the U.S. Open in New York that begins Aug. 29.
“These are all building blocks for New York,” said her new coach, Eric Hechtman. “And put it this way, she’s not just showing up as a farewell tour. Today, we could see stretches of level of play that are championship level, and I truly believe that she has got that gear in her, and I know she believes it, too.”