While that notion seems downright insane in retrospect, Serena Williams’ return to action didn’t seem like one of the preeminent storylines at the start of the 2022 National Bank Open.
Every time the greatest player of all time – damn it, maybe the greatest athlete of all time – steps onto the pitch, there’s a basic level of intrigue, that’s for sure, but with a cohort of emerging young stars, Canadian fan favorites and a slew 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 have foreseen what happened next. That all changed when Williams announced her impending retirement Tuesday morning in a first-person essay for Vogue, saying she wanted to move on to the next chapter of her life.
“I never liked the word retirement,” Williams wrote. “That doesn’t sound like a modern word to me. I thought of it as a transition, but I want to be sensitive to how I use this word, which means something very specific and important to a community of people. Perhaps the best word to describe what I do is evolution. I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis, towards other things that are important to me.
Williams held her only media availability on Monday afternoon following a convincing 6-3, 6-4 win over Spaniard Nuria Parrizas Diaz. The GOAT was gracious with his time and seemed at peace, although neither of us had the slightest premonition that his essay would fall the next morning.
I asked Williams if she accepted the idea that the 2022 National Bank Open was a clash between a generation of previously established stars and former world No. 1s like her, against a new cohort, guarding Iga Swiatek, Paula Badosa and Maria Sakkari among others in mind.
“It’s definitely that. I feel like there’s a lot of former winners and just champions in general on tour. And then some really exciting new young champions are coming in who are going to take over and that’s it. is exciting,” Williams told me.
The second part of the question centered on her memories in Toronto, and she graciously indulged in it.
“I love it here, it’s no secret that I had a fabulous time on the court and probably an even better time off the court in Toronto. It’s a big city and I like being here. I visit here all the time with friends, great memories.”
Predictably, the press lined up for Williams’ primetime match against Belinda Bencic on Wednesday. Everyone was there for Serena, everyone needs a story about Serena, she’s THE story, and everyone knows it.
It was not lost on anyone. Swiatek dispatched Ajla Tomljanovic in a 64-minute masterclass during the day, but the morning buzz was solely centered on the Williams-Bencic game. Ticket sales soared and Williams gave an exuberant standing ovation, preceded by a video tribute featuring Billie Jean King, a montage of questions from the press to current players about Williams throughout the week and, somewhat inexplicably, Wayne Gretzky.
And finally, the match began. Williams won their first service game but Bencic responded quickly on the next game before convincingly breaking Williams’ serve to take a 2-1 lead. Bencic’s two-handed serve and backhand are among the most impressive shots of the entire tournament so far, as evidenced by a rocket that paints the correct service box for an ace to go up 30-0, easily winning the part. Oh oh.
Williams shows some combat and trails 30-40 in her next service game, she is spurred on by a loud “C’MON SERENA” chant and wins her next three points. It’s 3-2 Bencic, and the house rocks, spurred on by the idea of an unlikely comeback.
Bencic is undeterred playing in a crowd that openly wants her to lose. In the seventh game of the first set, she hits a shot I haven’t quite seen before, putting her racquet in front of her face, with the speed of Williams’ previous shot ricocheting off Bencic’s racquet and onto the net for the weirdest winner. of the tournament so far. A few points later, Bencic holds a 5-2 lead.
While the mood is relatively light with fans dancing to “Ice Ice Baby” and the “Macarena” during game breaks, you can tell by the muffled volume of the crowd that everyone knows Williams isn’t changing. this one.
The second set goes much like the first and although the crowd is relentlessly supporting Williams, this one is over. Bencic plays the lights, and although Williams takes a 2-1 lead, the 25-year-old Swiss native crushes another two-handed backhand to win game four, and from that point on there is no more. back to back.
Bencic served for the match and after Williams sent the last point long, the crowd gave him his second standing ovation of the night. Williams receives a gift from the tournament director, then addresses the crowd.
“I’ve always loved playing here,” Williams said. “I wish I could have played better, but Belinda played so well today. But yeah, it’s been a pretty interesting 24 hours.
“I love you all. I suck at goodbyes…but goodbye.
To Bencic’s credit, she knows now is not the time for her, even though she played an incredible game. During Bencic’s post-game availability, almost every question was about Williams, and the 2015 National Bank Open champion was all too happy to share her thoughts on the greatest retirement of all time.
“She’s got this aura that’s just, you know, whether you like it or not, you’re intimidated, you’re scared. Once she’s just standing there on the way back, you’re just a little scared. Of course, that’s is Serena,” Bencic told reporters.
“And, I mean, in a way with her, I almost feel like I’m dazzled every time I see her. So it’s hard to play her. It’s hard to put that aside and just focus on the game. Because I feel like I don’t know how I play next, because I feel like I’m a little paralyzed just watching her. But of course, you know, the crowd was amazing tonight. To be a part of all of this is really very special for me too and for her.
Williams will play her last tournament in a few weeks at the US Open, a fitting send-off 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 an eventful week and while there are still four days left in the tournament, the 2022 National Bank Open will be defined by the greatest of all time, Serena Williams.
More from Yahoo Sports