Serena Williams out of U.S. Open after Round of 32 thriller

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
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NEW YORK — Leave it to Serena Williams to not want to go quietly, to not want this match, this trip to the U.S. Open, this transcendent career of hers, to really, truly end.

Right down to what were, barring a change of heart, the final minutes of her quarter-century of excellence on the tennis court, and an unbending unwillingness to be told what wasn’t possible, Williams tried to mount one last classic comeback, earn one last vintage victory, with fans on their feet in a full Arthur Ashe Stadium, cellphone cameras at the ready.

The 23-time Grand Slam champion staved off five match points to prolong the three-hours-plus proceedings, but could not do more, and was eliminated from the U.S. Open in the third round by Ajla Tomljanovic 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-1 in what is expected to be her final contest.

“I’ve been down before. … I don’t really give up,” Williams said. “In my career, I’ve never given up. In matches, I don’t give up. Definitely wasn’t giving up tonight.”

She turns 41 this month and recently told the world that she is ready to start “evolving” away from her playing days – she expressed distaste for the word “retirement” – and while she remained purposely vague about whether this appearance at Flushing Meadows definitely would represent her last hurrah, everyone assumed it will be.

“It’s been the most incredible ride and journey I’ve ever been on in my life,” Williams said, tears streaming down her cheeks shortly after one final shot landed in the net. “I’m so grateful to every single person that’s ever said, `Go, Serena!’ in their life.”

Asked during an on-court interview whether she might reconsider walking away, Williams replied: “I don’t think so, but you never know.”

A little later, pressed on the same topic at her post-match news conference, Williams joked, “I always did love Australia,” the country that hosts the next Grand Slam tournament in January.

With two victories in singles this week, including over the No. 2 player in the world, Anett Kontaveit, on Wednesday, Williams took her fans on a thrill-a-minute throwback trip at the hard-court tournament that was the site of a half-dozen of her championships.

The first came in 1999 in New York, when Williams was a teen. Now she’s married and a mother; her daughter, Olympia, turned 5 on Thursday.

“Clearly, I’m still capable. … (But) I’m ready to be a mom, explore a different version of Serena,” she said. “Technically, in the world, I’m still super young, so I want to have a little bit of a life while I’m still walking.”

With 23,859 of her closest friends cheering raucously again, Williams faltered against Tomljanovic, a 29-year-old Australian who is ranked 46th.

Williams gave away leads in each set, including the last, in which she was up 1-0 before dropping the final six games.

Tomljanovic is unabashedly a fan of Williams, having growing up watching her play on TV.

“I’m feeling really sorry, just because I love Serena just as much as you guys do. And what she’s done for me, for the sport of tennis, is incredible,” said Tomljanovic, who has never been past the quarterfinals at any major. “This is a surreal moment for me.”

Then, drawing laughs, Tomljanovic added: “I just thought she would beat me. … She’s Serena. That’s that’s just who she is: She’s the greatest of all time. Period.”

Asked what she planned to do on the first day of the rest of her life Saturday, Williams said she’d rest, spend time with Olympia and then added: “I’m definitely probably going to be karaoke-ing.”

Her performance with her racket showed grit and featured some terrific serving, but it was not perfect.

On one point in the second set, Williams’ feet got tangled and she fell to the court, dropping her racket. She finished with 51 unforced errors, 21 more than Tomljanovic.

Williams let a 5-3 lead vanish in the first set. She did something similar in the second, giving away edges of 4-0 and 5-2, and requiring five set points to finally put that one in her pocket. From 4-all in the tiebreaker, meaning Williams was three points from defeat, she pounded a 117 mph ace, hit a forehand winner to cap a 20-stroke exchange, then watched Tomljanovic push a forehand long.

Momentum appeared to be on Williams’ side. But she could not pull off the sort of never-admit-defeat triumph she did so often over the years.

“Oh, my God, thank you so much. You guys were amazing today. I tried,” Williams told the audience, hands on her hips, before mentioning, among others, her parents and her older sister, Venus, a seven-time major champion who is 42.

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

They started in tennis as kids in Compton, California, coached by their father, Richard, who taught himself about the sport after watching on television while a player received a winner’s check. He was the central figure in the Oscar-winning film “King Richard,” produced by his daughters.

The siblings lost together in the first round of doubles on Thursday night, drawing another sellout. As during the younger Williams’ other outings this week, there could be no doubt about which player the paying public favored.

When Tomljanovic broke to go up 6-5 as part of a four-game run to take the opening set, one person in her guest box rose to applaud – and he was pretty much on his own.

Otherwise, folks applauded when Tomljanovic double-faulted, generally considered a faux pas for tennis crowds.

They got loud in the middle of lengthy exchanges, also frowned upon.

They offered sympathetic sounds of “Awwwwww” when Williams flubbed a shot, and leapt out of their seats when she did something they found extraordinary. A rather routine service break was cause for a standing ovation.

Tomljanovic draped a blue-and-white U.S. Open towel over her head at changeovers, shielding herself from the noise and distractions.

“Just really blocked it out as much as I could. It did get to me a few times, internally. I mean, I didn’t take it personally because, I mean, I would be cheering for Serena, too, if I wasn’t playing her,” Tomljanovic said. “But it was definitely not easy.”

After Williams struck a swinging backhand volley winner to take a 4-0 lead in the second set, her play improving with every passing moment, the reaction was earsplitting. Billie Jean King, a Hall of Famer with 39 total Grand Slam titles across singles, doubles and mixed doubles, raised her cellphone to capture the scene.

“You’re everywhere!” yelled Williams’ husband, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, from a courtside guest box that also contained power couple Ciara and Russell Wilson.

When Williams drove two consecutive forehand winners to lead 5-2 in the second set, she screamed and leaned forward after each.

She could not sustain that level.

Williams entered the night having won 19 times in a row in the U.S. Open’s third round of singles competition, including reaching at least the semifinals in her most recent 11 appearances in New York.

Talk about a full-circle moment: The only other third-round loss she’s ever had at Flushing Meadows (she is 42-0 in the first and second rounds) came in 1998, the year Williams made her tournament debut at age 16.

She would win her first major trophy 12 months later at the U.S. Open. And now she said goodbye in that same stadium.

“It’s been a long time. I’ve been playing tennis my whole life,” Williams said, after performing one last twirl-and-wave move usually reserved for victories. “It is a little soon, but I’m also happy because, I mean, this is what I wanted, what I want.”

Aryna Sabalenka wins 1st Grand Slam title at Australian Open

2023 Australian Open - Day 13
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MELBOURNE, Australia – One point away from her first Grand Slam title, Aryna Sabalenka faulted. And then she faulted again. She grimaced. She yelled and turned her back to the court. She wiggled her shoulders and exhaled.

Clearly, this business of winning the Australian Open was not bound to happen without a bit of a struggle Saturday night. Sabalenka knew deep inside that would be the case. She also knew that all of the effort she put in, to overcome self-doubt and those dreaded double-faults, had to pay off eventually. Just had to.

And so, as she wasted a second match point by flubbing a forehand, and a third by again missing another, Sabalenka did her best to stay calm, something she used to find quite difficult. She hung in there until a fourth chance to close out Elena Rybakina presented itself – and this time, Sabalenka saw a forehand from her similarly powerful foe sail long. That was that. The championship belonged to Sabalenka via a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 comeback victory over Wimbledon winner Rybakina.

“The last game, yeah, of course, I was a little bit nervous. I (kept) telling myself, like, ‘Nobody tells you that it’s going to be easy.’ You just have to work for it, work for it, ’til the last point,” said Sabalenka, a 24-year-old from Belarus who is now 11-0 with two titles in 2023 and will rise to No. 2 in the WTA rankings on Monday.

“I’m super happy that I was able to handle all those emotions,” she said, “and win this one.”

The only set she has dropped all season was the opener on Saturday against Rybakina, who eliminated No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the fourth round.

It was telling that Sabalenka’s remarks during the post-match ceremony were directed at her coach, Anton Dubrov, and her fitness trainer, Jason Stacy – she referred to them as “the craziest team on tour.”

“We’ve been through a lot of, I would say, downs last year,” said Sabalenka, who was appearing in her first major final and had been 0-3 in Slam semifinals until this week. “We worked so hard and you guys deserve this trophy. It’s more about you than it’s about me.”

Well, she had a lot to do with it, of course. Those serves that produced 17 aces, helping erase the sting of seven double-faults. Those hammered groundstrokes and relentlessly aggressive style that produced 51 winners, 20 more than Rybakina’s total. And, despite her go-for-broke shotmaking, somehow Sabalenka limited her unforced error count to 28. One more key statistic: Sabalenka managed to accrue 13 break points, converting three, including the one at 4-3 in the last set that put her ahead for good.

“She played really well today,” said Rybakina, who has lost all four matches she’s played against Sabalenka, all in three sets. “She was strong mentally, physically.”

While the latter has long been a hallmark of her game, even Sabalenka acknowledges that the first has been an issue.

Her most glowing strength was also her most glaring shortfall: her serve. Capable of delivering aces, she also had a well-known problem with double-faulting, leading the tour in that category last year with nearly 400, including matches with more than 20.

After much prodding from her group, she agreed to undergo an overhaul of her mechanics last August. That, along with a commitment to trying to keep her emotions in check – she used to work with a sports psychologist but no longer, saying she relies on herself now – is really paying off.

“She didn’t have great serve last year, but now she was super strong and she served well,” said Rybakina, a 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan. “For sure, I respect that. I know how much work it takes.”

With seagulls squawking loudly while flying overhead at Rod Laver Arena, Rybakina and Sabalenka traded serious racket swings for nearly 2 1/2 hours.

The serves were big. So big. Rybakina’s fastest arrived at 121 mph (195 kph), Sabalenka’s at 119 mph (192 kph).

The points were over quickly. So quickly: Seven of the first 13 were aces.

Sabalenka had been broken just six times in 55 service games through the course of these two weeks, but Rybakina did it twice in the opening set.

And never again. Sabalenka resolved to take the initiative even more, and the payoff for her high-risk, high-reward attitude was too much for Rybakina to withstand over the last two sets.

Sabalenka said ahead of time that she expected to feel some jitters. Which makes perfect sense for anyone: This was the most important match of her career.

At the end, when it mattered more than ever, Sabalenka was able to steady herself. After the final point, she dropped to her back on the court and stayed down for a bit, covering her face as her eyes welled with tears.

Quite a difference from a year ago at Melbourne Park, when Sabalenka departed after 15 double-faults in a fourth-round loss.

“I really feel right now that I really needed those tough losses to kind of understand myself a little bit better. It was like a preparation for me,” Sabalenka said at her post-match news conference, her new trophy nearby and a glass of bubbly in her hand. “I actually feel happy that I lost those matches, so right now I can be a different player and just a different Aryna, you know?”

Rybakina, Sabalenka to meet in Australian Open women’s final

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Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
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MELBOURNE, Australia — What all seemed so different, so daunting, even, about trying to win a Grand Slam title to Elena Rybakina a little more than six months ago is now coming rather naturally.

And if she can win one more match, she will add a championship at the Australian Open to the one she collected at Wimbledon.

Rybakina, a 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan, reached her second final in a span of three major tournaments by beating Victoria Azarenka 7-6 (4), 6-3 at Melbourne Park on Thursday, signaling a rapid rise toward the top of tennis.

“Everything was new at Wimbledon,” Rybakina said after hitting nine aces in the semifinals to raise her tournament-leading total to 44. “Now I more or less understand what to expect.”

That could come in handy Saturday, when she will face No. 5 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus. Sabalenka reached her first Grand Slam title match at age 24 by beating unseeded Magda Linette 7-6 (1), 6-2 in Thursday’s second semifinal.

Sabalenka improved to 10-0 in 2023, winning all 20 sets she has contested this season.

More importantly, the victory over Linette gave Sabalenka her first taste of success in a Slam semi after going 0-3 at that stage until now, losing each previous attempt by a 6-4 score in the third set.

Rybakina and Sabalenka employ a somewhat similar brand of tennis, relying on big serves and big hitting at the baseline. Sabalenka is far less cautious, though, and her penchant for high-risk, high-reward play was evident against Linette, who had never before been past the third round in 29 appearances at majors.

Sabalenka finished with a whopping 33-9 edge in winners, but also compiled more unforced errors – including a trio that led to a break at love by Linette in the opening game.

The key to both semifinals turned out to be a first-set tiebreaker. Azarenka lost the mark on her strokes, for the most part, making things smoother for Rybakina, while Sabalenka raced to a 6-0 lead in hers. It wasn’t the case that each and every shot Sabalenka hit landed right on a line, but it must have seemed that way to Linette.

“In the tiebreaker, I really found my rhythm,” Sabalenka said. “Started trusting myself. Started going for my shots.”

Rybakina’s win over Azarenka, the champion at Melbourne Park in 2012 and 2013, added to what already was an impressive run through a string of top opponents. She also beat No. 1 Iga Swiatek and No. 17 Jelena Ostapenko – both owners of major titles – and 2022 Australian Open runner-up Danielle Collins.

“For sure, they’re very experienced players,” said Rybakina, whose parents and sister have been in town throughout the Australian Open. “I knew that I have to focus on every point.”

She delivered serves at up to 117 mph (189 kph) and stinging groundstrokes that she used to close points seemingly at will on Thursday. Her performance was particularly noteworthy against a returner and defender as established on hard courts as Azarenka, a former No. 1 and a three-time runner-up at the U.S. Open.

“Kind of hard to digest,” Azarenka said. “Obviously, I had quite a few chances that I gave myself.”

Rybakina is just 23, 10 years younger than Azarenka, and the future sure looks bright at the moment.

Rybakina might be seeded just 22nd in Melbourne, and ranked just 25th, but those numbers are rather misleading and not indicative at all of her talent and form. She did not get the usual bump from her title last July at Wimbledon, where zero rankings points were awarded after the All England Club banned players from Russia and Belarus because of the invasion of Ukraine.

Rybakina was born in Moscow; she switched to Kazakhstan in 2018, when that country offered to fund her tennis career.

It was breezy and chilly at Rod Laver Arena from the start of Rybakina vs. Azarenka, with the temperature dipping below 70 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius).

That had a role in the way the first set was as much of a seesaw as can be, with each player seeming to gain the upper hand – and then ceding it just as quickly. Both found the conditions slowed down the tennis balls.

“Kind of misjudged a lot of balls,” Azarenka said.

Rybakina encountered similar issues and her occasional inconsistency was encapsulated by the very first game. She began, inauspiciously enough, with a double-fault, before holding with the help of three aces.

Azarenka nosed ahead by breaking for a 3-2 lead on a leaping, full-extension volley winner with both women at the net. Rybakina, though, broke right back, and then once more to go up 5-3.

Azarenka saved a set point at 5-3 with a terrific down-the-line forehand passing shot, wound up taking the game with a backhand she accented with a shout of “Let’s go!”

A mistake-filled tiebreaker ended with Azarenka pushing a forehand wide to cap an 11-shot exchange, and the set belonged to Rybakina. She broke at love for a 2-1 lead in the second, and while they competed for another 25 minutes, the outcome was never really much in doubt.

Sure, Rybakina again faltered for a bit while trying to serve out the victory at 5-2. No one expected Azarenka to go quietly. But one last break, aided by a double-fault from Azarenka, allowed Rybakina to take another step toward another trophy.

“Ready,” she said, “to give everything I have left.”