Tonight, Serena Williams was defeated in the third round of the U.S. Open after an electric match against the Australian world number 46 Ajla Tomljanović. Both players delivered some of the most impressive tennis of their careers—including two astonishingly tense tiebreaks that had the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium on the edges of their seats—but Williams’s exit from the tournament will be remembered as the most significant on-court moment of this year’s tour, marking the ending of her extraordinary, two-decade-long career as a tennis pro.
The match kicked off a few minutes later than usual, after the organizers decided to air their video tribute to Williams at the beginning of tonight’s face-off. Narrated by Oprah Winfrey, it started with a clip of Williams winning her first U.S. Open title in 1998, before going through a montage of some of her best moments at Arthur Ashe—surely an intimidating introduction for Tomljanović, who was taking on the clear crowd favorite. A voice reading “the greatest of all time” boomed over the loudspeakers as Williams stepped onto the court, cueing cheers from the stands.
Williams was somewhat slow to find her footing this match, as she had been throughout the Open. Still, while Tomljanović dominated in the first game, Williams met her crafty returns with confidence, making for a nail-biting first set. After a brutal tiebreak to the finish line, Tomljanović took the first set 7-5.
In an especially thrilling second set, Williams had the upper hand at first—leading by four games at one point—but in time, Tomljanović began charging back. There were a series of spectacular rallies—including a 12-minute game that involved a whopping four set points for Williams, but saw her lose out to Tomljanović with a missed net shot—and a second tiebreak in which Williams was visibly buoyed by the wildly enthusiastic energy of the crowd. After a lengthy back-and-forth, she took the second set home 7-6.
In the third set, Tomljanović established an early lead—and though Williams battled valiantly against Tomljanović’s terrific serves game after game—the 29-year-old eventually won the match 7-5, 6-7, 6-1.
Still, this tournament feels like a victory for Williams, who has delivered superb tennis across a physically demanding U.S. Open. Where she got off to a slow start in her first-round match against Danka Kovinić of Montenegro, she hit the ground running during her match against Anett Kontaveit of Estonia, eventually settling into her groove as a player whose powerful serves and ground strokes know no rival.