Serena's send-off: Canada says goodbye to an incomparable champion

Watch as tennis legend Serena Williams is honoured with a tribute video looking back at her decorated career at the National Bank Open ahead of her match against Belinda Bencic.

TORONTO — She wiped tears from her cheeks with a white towel as she walked off the court, clutching a giant bouquet of flowers in one hand, and then Serena Williams threw up an arm for a final wave goodbye.

Moments earlier, the incomparable champion had informed this roaring and sold-out crowd at the National Tennis Centre that she was “terrible at goodbyes,” and then added, with a smile, “but goodbye, Toronto!”

And this was it, the last hurrah in Canada from a woman who has won more than any other in the modern era and who will retire later this season and leave an impossible-to-fill hole in the game she changed forever. Who can picture tennis without Serena Williams? Wednesday night was officially the last time she’ll play in this country, a second-round loss at the National Bank Open, where she was three times a champion, for the first time 21 years ago, but not this time, not the last time.

The match took just one hour and 17 minutes, a two-set loss to Belinda Bencic that most everyone wanted to last longer and end differently so that this wouldn’t in fact be the end of one of her last tournaments.

“It was more than just about tennis, and, you know, like it was really all about Serena and just her career,” Bencic said, when it was over. She was happy to win, of course. But, the world No. 12 added: “Today it’s a little bit more sad in a way. I don’t really want her to retire.”

The news is still sinking in for just about everyone, and certainly for those in the tennis world. It came just a day earlier, when Williams released a first-person article in Vogue Magazine that explained she was stepping away from tennis after the U.S. Open because she wants to focus on expanding her family, because she’s turning 41 next month, because she doesn’t want to once again juggle being an athlete with having and raising a young baby, because she wants to put both feet into being a parent.

“Yeah, it was a lot of emotions,” Williams said, of what she’s been experiencing since that article was published. She did her only post-match interview on court with Sportsnet’s Carly Agro, opting to not hold a press conference (that’s all part of being bad at goodbyes). “And yeah, I wish I could have played better, but Belinda played so well today,” Williams added. “But it’s been a pretty interesting 24 hours.”

Williams said she didn’t know if she could quite savour the moment of this last match in Canada, and then a fan yelled “Serena! You’re the best!” and the crowd was set off roaring once again when Williams told the fans she loved every last one of them.

There were flashes of brilliance from Williams in this historic match. She started it with an ace, and then followed it up with a serve directed at Bencic’s body, and when she was down a break point in that opening game, she fired another ace and eventually held her serve.

There were other points when unforced errors did her in, when she couldn’t get to balls to return them. Bencic broke Williams on her second service game to go up 2-1, and never really looked back after that.

It didn’t matter much to the crowd, who grew incredibly loud whenever Williams was up and whenever Williams was down. “Let’s go Serena!” they yelled. And: “We love you, Serena!” When she served up an ace, they asked: “Give her another one!”

Fans held signs that said “GOAT” and “Canada loves Serena” and “Thank you Serena” and “Welcome to the Williams Show!” Walking into the stadium a sign proclaimed: “Serena plays tonight!” Everybody knew. All the phones were out recording her final moments of this last match.

And since her announcement Tuesday, so many have weighed in on her impact in this sport. Over the last 24 hours, Billie Jean King, Wayne Gretzky and basically every tennis player has been asked about Williams. Almost all of them have different answers about what makes her so great and so important, because that’s how wide-ranging her impact has been, because there’s so much more to Williams than her 23 Grand Slam titles, 73 WTA titles and four Olympic gold medals.

“Like, you can feel her presence everywhere,” Bencic said. “She has this aura that’s just, you know, if you want it or not, you are intimidated, you are scared. Once she’s standing there at the return, you just get a little bit scared. Of course, it’s Serena.

“And I mean, in a way with her it feels almost like I’m star struck every time I see her. So it’s difficult to play her… I feel like I’m paralyzed a little bit just, like, watching her.”

“Oh, man,” a wide-eyed Bianca Andreescu said, when Williams and her impending retirement came up. The 22-year-old beat Williams here in the 2019 final, and then soon after in the U.S. Open final. “I feel honoured to have gotten that opportunity to play her and even connect with her in some way,” Andreescu said.

Andreescu hopes to play Williams one more time. Coco Gauff does, too — the 18-year-old has never had the chance. “The legacy that she’s left through her tennis career is something that I don’t think any other player can probably touch,” said Gauff, who herself is a direct example of Williams’ influence. “I mean, that’s the reason why I play tennis,” she added. “Tennis being a predominantly white sport, it definitely helped a lot. Because I saw somebody who looked like me dominating the game. It made me believe that I could dominate, too.”

On court, after her last hurrah in Canada, as her daughter Olympia looked on, Williams was reminded that she’d been playing in this country for 22 years. She smiled and then more tears began to fall.

“Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” Williams said, just before she walked off this court for the last time. “It’s been a joy playing in front of you guys for all these years, so thank you.”

And what else can we all say, but thank you right back. And lucky for all of us, Serena Williams isn't quite done yet. 

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