What was supposed to be a prime time, packed-house celebration of the Williams sisters at the U.S. Open turned into something rather less festive than planned on Thursday night.
The rain cloud was the Czech doubles team of Lucie Hradecka and Linda Noskova, who unlike Venus and Serena Williams have not won 14 Grand Slam doubles titles together.
In fact the 37-year-old Hradecka and the 17-year-old Noskova had never played a pro tournament together before until walking out into the cavernous confines of Arthur Ashe Stadium for their first-round match against Team Williams.
But experience did not prove decisive as the Czechs, who clicked quickly, prevailed in a tight first set and then closed out their 7-6 (5), 6-4 victory and likely put a downbeat end to the Williamses’ phenomenal career as a team at this level.
Exhibition tours and even comebacks may await, but this certainly felt like the end of an era for one of the greatest doubles teamsin the game’s history. It came quickly after the Williamses had succeeded in rallying from a 1-4 deficit in the second set to get back to 4-4. And it came in an atmosphere that was comparatively subdued despite the sellout crowd of nearly 24,000: quite a contrast with the rock festival atmosphere at Serena Williams’s night singles matches in this year’s tournament as she has made a stirring run to the third round in her farewell U.S. Open.
Serena Williams at the U.S. Open
The U.S. Open could be the tennis star’s last professional tournament after a long career of breaking boundaries and obliterating expectations.
- A Magical Run: As her successes on the field prove, Serena Williams did not come to New York to receive a ceremonial send-off, but to put her best on the line against the world’s finest players.
- In the Player’s Box: Fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium have been catching glimpses of her family and entourage. Here is a look at who has been in attendance to support her.
- Her Fans: We asked readers to share their memories of watching Williams play and the emotions that she stirred. There was no shortage of submissions.
- Sisterhood on the Field: Since Williams and her sister Venus burst onto the tennis scene in the 1990s, their legacies have been tied to one another.
But though Serena Williams was often effective and decisive on Thursday night, she could not hold serve to keep the sisters in the match at 4-5. At 15-40, Hradecka poached and knocked away a backhand volley winner to close out the victory, and the sisters were soon packing up in a hurry and exiting the court without an on-court interview (or signing autographs despite all the souvenir balls being extended in their direction as they headed for the tunnel).
The Czechs ended up with the floor and the interview with ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez. The Williams sisters even declined to give a news conference, which has not been unusual for them in 2022.
“I’m still in shock that we won because played the first time with each other,” Hradecka said, addressing the crowd, which seemed rather stunned as well. “I think we did a very good job, and I’m so sorry for you that we beat them, but we are so happy we did it.”
The night was not entirely bereft of pomp and circumstance. Before the sisters took the court, a video tribute was played on the big screens inside the stadium, showing footage of them through the decades. But there was no post-match ceremony planned, win or lose, and the sisters did not look much in the mood for public speaking after their straight-sets defeat.
The anticlimax should take nothing away from their collective achievements. The Williams sisters were quality over quantity. They rarely played together on tour, restricting most of their appearances to the majors and the Olympics. But their strike rate was phenomenal, particularly when they reached a championship match.
They were 14-0 in Grand Slam women’s doubles finals and 3-0 in Olympic gold-medal matches together. That is a statistic that will be noted (and tweeted) for years to come, and though it was a downer of a finish, it was still a fitting, full-circle place to finish.
The Williamses played in Ashe Stadium the year that it opened in 1997, with Venus reaching the singles final as an unseeded 17-year-old and 15-year-old Serena making her Grand Slam debut in doubles with Venus. They had white beads in their hair and braces on their teeth, and though they were dynamic and exuberant, they were beaten in the first round by Jill Hetherington and Kathy Rinaldi, who would later coach both sisters as the captain for the United States’ team in the Billie Jean King Cup.
“They’re both such different personalities but they’re both just such tremendous champions,” said Rinaldi, who was back in Ashe Stadium on Thursday night.
The sisters went on to win two U.S. Open titles together but had not played together at a major since the 2018 French Open. But at Serena’s request, they put the band back together in New York. Serena, who turns 41 this month, has announced her intention to “evolve away” from tennis sometime after the U.S. Open, while Venus, 42, has remained cryptic about her retirement plans.
The U.S. Open organizers did not hesitate to capitalize on the moment, opening a night session with a doubles match for the first time since Sept. 3, 2012, when the Williams sisters faced Nadia Petrova and Maria Kirilenko in a third-round match.
Perhaps it was foreshadowing that the sisters lost that one in straight sets, too, and with Venus’s elimination in the first round of singles, there is only one Williams left in this U.S. Open. Serena will be back on Ashe Stadium for a night session on Friday night to face the unseeded Australian Ajla Tomljanovic, who joked that she was planning on bringing earplugs to block out the roars.
No such measures would have been necessary on Thursday. Rarely have so many U.S. Open fans been so quiet after sundown.