Although this notion seems outright foolish in retrospect, Serena Williams’ return to action didn’t appear to be one of the preeminent storylines at the outset of the 2022 National Bank Open.
Any time the greatest player of all-time — hell, maybe the greatest athlete of all-time — takes the court, there’s a baseline level of intrigue to be sure, but with a cohort of younger, emerging stars, Canadian fan favourites and a number of former world No. 1s in the mix, we’d all be lying if we thought Williams would reemerge as the defining story of the tournament.
None of us could’ve anticipated what happened next. Everything changed when Williams announced her imminent retirement Tuesday morning in a first-person essay for Vogue, stating that she wants to move onto the next chapter of her life.
“I have never liked the word retirement,” Williams wrote. “It doesn’t feel like a modern word to me. I’ve been thinking of this as a transition, but I want to be sensitive about how I use that word, which means something very specific and important to a community of people. Maybe the best word to describe what I’m up to is evolution. I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me.”
Williams held her lone media availability Monday afternoon following a convincing 6-3, 6-4 victory over Spain’s Nuria Parrizas Diaz. The GOAT was gracious with her time and seemed at peace, although none of us had any premonition that her essay would drop the following morning.
I asked Williams whether she bought into the premise that the 2022 National Bank Open was a clash between a generation of previously established stars and former World No. 1s like herself, versus a new cohort, keeping Iga Swiatek, Paula Badosa, and Maria Sakkari among others in mind.
“It is definitely that. I feel like it’s a lot of past winners and just champions in general on tour. And then, some really exciting young new champions that are coming that are going to take over and that’s exciting,” Williams told me.
The second part of the question was centred around her memories in Toronto, and she gracefully indulged.
“I just love it here, it’s no secret that I’ve had a fabulous time on-court and probably an even better time off the court in Toronto. It’s a great city and I love being here. I visit here all the time with friends, good memories.”
As one would expect, the press corps doubled for Williams’ prime time match against Belinda Bencic on Wednesday. Everyone was here for Serena, everyone needs a story on Serena, she is THE story, and everybody knows it.
This wasn’t lost on anyone. Swiatek dispatched Ajla Tomljanovic in a 64-minute masterclass during the day session, but still, the buzz in the morning was solely centred around the Williams-Bencic match. Ticket sales skyrocketed and Williams took the court to an exuberant standing ovation, preceded by a video tribute featuring Billie Jean King, a montage of the press questions to current players about Williams throughout the week, and, somewhat inexplicably, Wayne Gretzky.
— Arun Srinivasan (@Arunthings) August 10, 2022
And finally, the match began. Williams won her first service game but Bencic quickly responded in the following game before breaking Williams’ serve convincingly to take a 2-1 lead. Bencic’s serve and two-hand backhand are some of the most impressive shots of the entire tournament to date, as evidenced by a rocket that paints the right service box for an ace to go up 30-0, winning the game easily. Uh-oh.
Williams shows some fight back and trailing 30-40 in her next service game, she’s boosted by a loud “C’MON SERENA” chant, and wins her next three points. It’s 3-2 Bencic, and the house is rocking, spurred on by the idea of an improbable comeback.
Bencic is undeterred by playing in a crowd that is openly rooting for her to lose. During the seventh game of the first set, she hits a shot I haven’t quite seen before, placing her racket in front of her face, with the velocity of Williams’ previous shot ricocheting off Bencic’s racket and over the net for the strangest winner of the tournament thus far. A few points later, Bencic is holding a commanding 5-2 lead.
While the mood is relatively light with fans dancing to "Ice Ice Baby" and the "Macarena" during match breaks, you can tell by the hushed volume of the crowd that everyone knows Williams isn’t turning this one around.
The second set plays out much like the first and though the crowd is unrelenting in its support for Williams, this one is over. Bencic is playing lights out, and though Williams takes an early 2-1 lead, the 25-year-old Switzerland native crushes another two-hand backhand to win the fourth game, and from that point onward, there’s no turning back.
Bencic serves for the match and after Williams sends the final point long, the crowd provides her with her second standing ovation of the evening. Williams is presented with a gift from the tournament director, and then addresses the crowd.
“I’ve always loved playing here," Williams said. "I wished I could’ve played better but Belinda played so well today. But yeah it’s been a pretty interesting 24 hours.
“I love y’all. I’m terrible at goodbyes….but goodbye.”
Another standing ovation for Serena Williams in her final match in Toronto, as Belinda Bencic emerges with a 6-2, 6-4 victory.
Bencic says tonight is about Serena, especially here in Toronto. #NBO22 pic.twitter.com/ix9JIUxEDT
— Arun Srinivasan (@Arunthings) August 11, 2022
To Bencic’s credit, she knows the moment isn’t about her, even though she played an amazing match. During Bencic’s post-match availability, nearly all the questions were about Williams, and the 2015 National Bank Open champion was all too happy to share her thoughts on the greatest of all-time retiring.
“She has this aura that's just, you know, if you want it or not, you are intimidated, you are scared. Once she's just standing there at the return, you just get a little bit scared. Of course it's Serena,” Bencic tells reporters.
“And, I mean, in a way with her it feels almost like I'm starstruck every time I see her. So it's difficult to play her. It's difficult to kind of put that aside and just focus on the match. Because I feel like, I just don't know how I then play, because I feel like I'm paralyzed a little bit just watching her. But of course, you know, the crowd was incredible tonight. Just being part of that whole thing, it's just really very special for me as well and for her.”
— Belinda Bencic (@BelindaBencic) August 11, 2022
Williams will play her final tournament in a few weeks at the US Open, a fitting sendoff for the defining player of her generation. If this week was any indication, Williams is leaving women’s tennis in good hands, with two generations clearly inspired by her impact on and off the court.
It’s been a whirlwind week, and while there are still another four days remaining in the tournament, the 2022 National Bank Open will be defined by the greatest of all-time, Serena Williams.
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