Serena Williams gracefully takes in the moment as the crowd...

Serena Williams gracefully takes in the moment as the crowd cheers for her after her loss to Ajla Tomljanovic in the third round of the U.S. Open at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Friday. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

They were perhaps the final words Serena Williams will utter in her professional playing career.

She had just lost to Ajla Tomljanovic on Friday night at Arthur Ashe Stadium, ending her bid to win the U.S. Open. She found herself at the media dais, looking almost dazed, when she was asked about all the tributes, the fanfare, the goodbye to greatness.

“I just honestly am so grateful that I had this moment and that I’m Serena,” she said.

Most will agree that Williams, the best of all time, has more than earned the right to that statement. But there still is that small, nagging subsection that bristles at what they think is undue cockiness — the swagger that made its home in men’s professional sports but for so long was considered uncouth when possessed by a woman.

It’s something that has followed Williams from the beginning of her career, even as she smashed the standard, redefined the sport and won 23 Grand Slams, ending the conversation of whether she was the best female tennis player ever and beginning one that asks where she ranks among the best athletes, period.

But the truth is that her confidence, her fight, her belief that she is the best and her refusal to shrink herself to make others feel bigger are as much a part of Williams’ legacy as her athleticism and power. When she stepped onto the court Friday, glittering in diamonds and a tutu, owning both her femininity and her ferocity, Williams continued to craft a mythos that will serve anyone who’s ever been told he or she did not have the right to strive for greatness.

That fact was underlined by Tomljanovic herself.

Serena Williams fell to Ajla Tomljanovic in the third round of the U.S. Open Friday night in what could be her final match, but it wasn't without a fight as she battled fatigue to put on a show for the ages. Credit: USTA

Maybe that sounds a little strange: Tomljanovic’s words Friday sometimes were meek, nearly apologetic. It was, she said, “the most conflicted I’ve ever felt during a win.” On court after her three-set victory, she all but apologized.

But even as the crowd chanted Williams’ name, and even as, she said, she found herself cast as the villain in this historic moment, Tomljanovic stared down at what felt like a no-win situation and won. She did not rattle. She did not let up. She used Williams’ own tactics against her, and when it was over, she approached everything with a graciousness and affability that perhaps belied the truth: Like her opponent, she was a contender, and a steely one at that.

“I do have a lot of faith in myself and belief,” she said. “I know I’ve put in the work over the last few months. Deep down I know I deserve to have that shot like I had tonight . . . I just kept calm and actually took a page from her book. I know Serena one time said she only thinks about the next point. If I’m playing her, I might use her tactic.”

“I deserve” — those are the words Tomljanovic used.

“I’m so grateful . . . I’m Serena,” Williams had said in that same seat moments before. “I’m such a fighter,” she added. No equivocating. No diminishing your achievement.

And then Tomljanovic said aloud what already was obvious: “I want to dream bigger than I have so far because that’s what she embodies.”

When people criticized Williams for being too much — too proud, too fashion-forward, too confident, too competitive — what they were doing was asking a generational talent to dream smaller.

But Williams didn’t have that option, not as a little girl growing up in Compton and not as an adult bearing the weight of a world full of little girls who have the right to dream bigger, too.

“From a young age, I remember seeing them with their dad and thinking that’s kind of like my story a little bit,” Tomljanovic said. “Just the fact that you don’t have to have anything other than a supportive family, a dream, and just will and passion and love for the game to make it. Not just make it, but what she’s achieved is absolutely incredible. I don’t know if it’s ever going to be repeated while I’m still around.”

What Williams accomplished cracked the door for those who came after her. How she accomplished it blew that door wide open. That doesn’t happen if she doesn’t risk committing what feels like the greatest sin in women’s sports: Appearing unlikable to that group of people who think it’s more important to be demure than dominant.

To be clear: Just because Williams was never demure doesn’t mean she lacked humility when the situation warranted it. She is, after all, stepping away from a sport when she clearly still has more in her. She wants a normal life. She wants to be there for her daughter. She wants to hold her family tight.

“I wouldn’t be Serena if there wasn’t Venus,” Williams said on court after her loss. “She’s the only reason Serena Williams ever existed.”

And that, too, is what she means when she says she is so grateful to be Serena — she’s grateful for the people and the situations that forged her, the older sister who propped her up through it all.

We should be grateful she got to be Serena, too.

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