Tickets for first-round matches at Arthur Ashe Stadium the other night were being peddled for much, much more than their face value for one reason alone: aging superstar Serena Williams was slated to burn rubber, and perhaps for the last time in her storied career. Nearly 30,000 warm bodies were on the Flushing Meadows grounds, with five-sixths of the number inside the grandest of stages in pro tennis, simply because she could well be wielding her racket one last time. The prospect of bidding goodbye to arguably the best female to grace the sport was simply too much for fans to ignore, the considerable expense notwithstanding.
Not that the veritable Who’s Who on hand at the National Tennis Center wanted Williams to lose. In fact, they were cheering her on to victory. Forget the pomp that accompanied the set-to, or the significant coin they shelled out to put their backsides in seats. If they needed to do so anew just to gain admission to her farewell tour, then so be it. They were ready to keep riding the wave for as long as they could. And even if she was scheduled to face unheralded Danka Kovinic, her recent outings did not lend optimism that she would not suffer the same one-and-done fate.
To be sure, Williams did not have to subject herself to the uncertainty that awaited her as a 40-year-old hopeful with hardly any competition in the last year. The United States Open was hard enough for her at her prime, and now even more so. She’s ready to hang up her sneakers for good, but on her terms. Which means playing in the ladies singles and doubles draws, never mind the Sisyphean bent in her endeavors. It’s win or bust every time she’s under the klieg lights, and whereas the former proved the far better bet for two decades, the latter has become more commonplace of late.
No matter what happens, though, Williams has already cemented her place among the sport’s all-time greats. Her body of work isn’t all roses; she has courted controversy at one time or another, and not always on the right side. That said, there can be no doubting how much she has distanced herself from her so-called peers. Heck, even Kovinic reveled in her triumph, and in the manner it was celebrated by the crowd. And if she exuded a rock star vibe, it was in large measure because of the spectacle around her.
There is no small irony in seeing Williams’ last matches attract the kind of attention not even previous finals could. The unlikelihood of a Cinderella finish has not dampened the mood — not for her, not for everyone else, and not for the United States Tennis Association. In view of the inevitable, all and sundry are compelled to reflect on her singular contributions. There is no one like her, and there never will be.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.