Even in the face of all-time greatness and unprecedented longevity that has spanned 27 remarkable years, time is undefeated and it will eventually come for us all. With every passing day, the end of Serena Williams’ professional tennis career draws alarmingly closer and the chances of one final, spectacular result fades.
In what is likely the penultimate tournament of her great career, Williams bowed out of the Western and Southern Open in her opening round match with a grim performance, emphatically losing 6-4, 6-0 to a spotless Emma Raducanu who did not put a foot wrong throughout.
“I think we all need to just honour Serena and her amazing career,” said Raducanu. “I’m so grateful for this experience to play her and for our careers to have crossed over. Everything she achieved is inspirational and it was a true honour to share the court with her.”
After an unwelcome one-day delay, Williams and Raducanu finally arrived on Tuesday evening with tightly packed crowds lining the grounds and peeking out from the overlooking stadium court to catch a glimpse of the American great before her match. When Williams arrived in the stadium, the audience offered her a standing ovation.
This was a battle of distant generations with 21 years separating 40-year-old Williams from 19-year-old Raducanu. But after a career characterised by countless comebacks, Williams’ one-year absence from the tour after last year’s Wimbledon has so far proved too long for her to regain her best form. She once again struggled desperately to establish any timing on strokes and her declining defence was easily to picked apart.
Williams opened the match with a dire opening service game, striking four errors in a row and losing the first five points of the match as she immediately fell down a break. It set the tone for the rest of the short encounter.
After a year of constant attention following her US Open victory, for Raducanu this was a rare opportunity as, for once, all cameras were pointed at her opponent and all eyes were across the net.
Without expectations or inhibitions, Raducanu played a spotless match. She soaked up Williams’ first strike, she patiently tested Williams’ shot tolerance in extended rallies and whenever the ball dropped short, Raducanu attacked without hesitation, exposing Williams’ greatly diminished movement. She ended the match with just a single unforced error along with 14 winners.
After falling down 1-4 in the opening set with Raducanu leading by two breaks, Williams finally began to connect with her forehand. For two brief games, she was a vision of her old self, obliterating groundstroke winners from behind the baseline. But Raducanu patiently navigated the brief storm and she remained extremely solid throughout.
Until the end, she gave nothing away, holding out the opening set and then breezing through the remainder of the match. She did not show a flicker of mercy – at 4-0, break point, she slotted a backhand crosscourt return winner to seal the final break before closing off the match with a bagel.
In Toronto, a day after Williams announced that the countdown to the end of her career had begun, she was defeated in straight sets by Belinda Bencic. After the loss, she remained for a rare loser’s on-court interview and barely held back tears as she said goodbye to Canada.
This time, despite the organisers lining up champagne by the court, there was no ceremony or silver lining. Williams packed her bags and left in a flash, her frustration clear for all to see. Only one tournament of Williams’ career remains, and this is far from how she envisioned the end. She will now head to the US Open, and for the madness that awaits her there in her final event, having won just one singles match in her last three tournaments.
For Raducanu, an unlikely opportunity to face a player whose greatness precedes her existence on this planet ended like a dream. She will always be able to say that she stared down Serena Williams on-court and departed with a win. For her efforts, Raducanu will next face another of the most successful players of the last decade in the second round as former No 1 Victoria Azarenka awaits.