Serena Williams found it difficult to say goodbye: the elite of the elite usually do

Maybe the first clue that retirement was going to be difficult for Serena Williams came in her first-person essay in Vogue, where she couldn’t even bring herself to say the word. Then there were the interviews throughout her month-long valedictory leading up to and during the US Open, where she deftly sidestepped direct questions and left the door open for a possible return. Even in the cathartic aftermath of Friday night’s third-round defeat to Ajla Tomljanovic, the sudden deluge of tears seemed to express a finality that she either could not or would not articulate in words.

“I don’t think so, but you never know,” she said, when asked if she would reconsider her decision. “I don’t know.”

This particular type of equivocation hardly makes Williams unique among elite athletes – or, more narrowly, the elite of the elite. Tom Brady is only the latest example of a great champion finding it hard to close the book on the glory days. Letting go is the hardest part and understandably so when you’ve been the best in the world at what you do. There was even a hint from Williams that she could return for the Australian Open. But these extended farewells almost always end in a messy defeat: as a last act, Friday night’s epic in front of a roaring crowd on Arthur Ashe was about as good as it gets.

Williams knows this shouldn’t be so hard for her. With a marriage to a supportive partner who shares her values, a daughter who just turned five and a venture capital firm that has raised more than $100m, there will be no crisis over her sense of purpose. She will continue to define success on her own terms as she has for nearly three decades in the unsparing public eye as a working-class black woman from Compton who rewrote the record books of a sport predominantly owned, played and watched by affluent white people.

Maybe it’s because the final, fleeting chapter of Williams’ tennis life – as the US Open effectively became the Serena Williams Invitational over the course of five days that boasted record attendances and US television ratings – has been so fulfilling. Unbound from the pressure of her usual status as the favourite, Williams was allowed to savour her final go-round in the unfamiliar role of a betting long-shot.

It’s the peculiar nature of a sport where you only have to beat the player in front of you that not all major championship runs are equal. When Williams won her first of 23 grand slam titles at the 1999 US Open as a 17-year-old, her road to the trophy included five opponents who one day would end up in the Hall of Fame: Kim Clijsters, Conchita Martínez, Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis.

Even as she fielded a congratulatory phone call from President Clinton afterward, it was impossible to fully reckon the extent to which her triumph would shape the perception of female athletes in the new millennium. Her status as the tour’s undoubted No 1 soon followed, as well as the pressures that came with it. It was a weight only redoubled by the two strikes against her in American society: being born a woman and being born black.

That’s what made Williams’s stirring win over the second-seeded Anett Kontaveit at this year’s US Open so unique. Williams has played in countless big matches in the past quarter-century, but not a whole lot of them in the underdog role. “I’m just looking at it as a bonus,” Williams said on Wednesday after toppling the world No 2. “I don’t have anything to prove. I don’t have anything to win. And I have absolutely nothing to lose.”

Williams, who turns 41 in a few weeks, had barely played on the tour since injuring her hamstring at Wimbledon last year. She returned to the All England Club after a 12-month absence but looked far below her standard against an opponent ranked outside the top 100, then appeared even further out of her depth in a pair of one-sided losses at US Open tune-up events.

The oddsmakers priced her at 50-1 at the start of the US Open. After beating Konteveit, she was among the tournament favourites. “Honestly, I never get to play like this since ’98, really,” Williams said on Wednesday evening. “Literally, I’ve had an X on my back since ’99, so it’s kind of fun. I really enjoy just coming out and enjoying it. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to do that.”

On Friday night, her free-swinging, go-for-broke approach led to her best tennis of the tournament, even as she wasted a 5-3 advantage in the opening set, then 4-0 and 5-2 leads before winning a tiebreaker in the pyrrhic second. She fought like hell, flashing the unparalleled competitive spirit and towering self-belief that have become her calling card.

After breaking her Aussie foe in the first game of the decider, Williams was finally done in by the realities of time. Within the blink of an eye, Tomljanovic was serving for the match at 5-1. But she was not ready to go. She saved the first match point with a swinging backhand volley. Then another with a forehand missile down the line that Tomljanovic could not handle. Then another with a blistering forehand return winner. Then a fourth, then a fifth as the match extended past the three-hour mark.

Other than winning the whole tournament, it was the perfect way to go out: 15 minutes of pure fight. What else is left to say? So when Serena says she’s retiring from tennis, maybe it’s time to believe her – and for her to believe herself.