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Saturday sports: Serena Williams' dramatic U.S. Open

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And now it's time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Serena Williams goes out like a champion with a magical and majestic career. NPR's Tom Goldman joins us from New York, the site of the U.S. Open. Tom, thanks so much for being with us.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: What was it like to be there at that moment in history?

GOLDMAN: Exhausting. The waves of emotion...

SIMON: Excuse me. The tennis players play, Tom. You're just reporting on it.

GOLDMAN: I know.

SIMON: Go ahead. All right.

GOLDMAN: But for those of us in the stands at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the waves of emotion over a three-hour match - I was exhausted. It started out looking like Williams' first two matches here, which she won. She went up 5 games to 3 in the first set - all systems go - but then lost 7-5, and that would set the tone. Several times, she took leads, but then lost them, and by the third and deciding set, she was out of gas. She lost at 6-1.

The last game was a fabulous final moment, though. It took her opponent, Ajla Tomljanovic, six match points to end it. Williams just kept fighting - one of the hallmarks of her 27-year career. I have to give, first of all, kudos to Tomljanovic. She played beautifully, powerfully. She was remarkably composed considering she was playing against the GOAT and 24,000 fans on Williams' side, even to the point of cheering Tomljanovic's mistakes. In the on-court post-match interviews, Tomljanovic was asked how she survived all that, and here's what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AJLA TOMLJANOVIC: I just thought she would beat me, you know? So I was...

(LAUGHTER)

TOMLJANOVIC: ...The pressure wasn't on me, so she's Serena. Even to the last point, I knew that she's in a really good position to win, even when she's down 5-1. That's just who she is, and she's the greatest of all time, period.

(CHEERING)

SIMON: Very classy. And Serena Williams had the enormous grace to address the fans and the crowd after this epic match. What did she say?

GOLDMAN: Well, she said it's been a fun ride and an incredible journey. It didn't take her long to get choked up when she started to talk about her parents, who were the driving force, of course, behind Serena and sister Venus pursuing tennis at a young age, starting in Compton, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SERENA WILLIAMS: Thank you, Daddy. I know you're watching. Thanks, Mom. Oh, my God.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

SIMON: Oh, my. Look, Serena Williams can take her own sweet time to decide to do whatever she wants in life, but did she - sounding like someone who's made up her mind?

GOLDMAN: Well, you know, she repeated on court what she said earlier in the week - you never know - as far as maybe there's more tennis to come. And talking to reporters, she laughingly said, I always did love Australia, talking about the Australian Open coming up in January. But then, Scott, there were comments like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAMS: I'm ready to, like, be a mom and explore a different version of Serena. And technically, in the world, I'm still super young, so I want to, like, have a little bit of a life while I'm still walking.

SIMON: What do you think we'll remember and cherish about this towering figure in sports and American life?

GOLDMAN: Well, first of all, of course, brilliant, dominant tennis. The numbers alone bear that out - not only 23 Grand Slam singles titles, 14 Grand Slam doubles titles with Venus - that's 37 combined, and I would say unbeatable. Then her impact on the game, the way she and her sister made power and athleticism the standard in women's tennis. You look how Tomljanovic bashed forehands and serves all night. She's one of a generation of players who grew up idolizing Serena and then emulating her.

There was Serena's fashion on and off the court and passion during matches - the fist pumping, the screaming at herself, the screaming at others at times - infamous incidents at the U.S. Open when she threatened a lineswoman or berated a chair umpire for penalizing her. You know, Scott, critics called it boorish behavior. Supporters called it Serena being Serena and letting it all hang out. I think in general this week, the positive moments have been stressed, especially her cultural impact, including how she gave Black women and, in recent years, working moms a person to look up to.

SIMON: Tom Goldman, thanks so much. I envy you being there. Sounds like a great night. Thanks.

GOLDMAN: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.