TORONTO — Karl Hale has been the tournament director at the National Bank Open since 2006 and had never seen anything like the 24 hours after Serena Williams said she was winding down her professional tennis career.
“We heard it yesterday morning, and immediately ticket sales picked up,” Hale said. “In the players’ lounge, you heard the chatter. It’s the first time I’ve seen so many players watch a practice. She practiced at 9 a.m., and everybody was out there watching her.”
Williams, who played a second-round match against Belinda Bencic of Switzerland on Wednesday night, stepped onto the court with everyone aware she could be competing for the last time in front of Canadian tennis fans at this tournament.
“But I hope not,” said Hale, who has known Serena and her sister Venus for more than 20 years since they began coming to Toronto.
The stadium north of downtown packed in 12,500 fans, and the tournament set up an outdoor viewing area — for the first time — for another 5,000.
Ahead of Serena Williams’s taking the court — which she did with a bowed head and a serious expression — a video with greetings from the retired champion Billie Jean King and some rising stars on the tour, Coco Gauff, Leylah Fernandez and Bianca Andreescu, played for the crowd. Wayne Gretzky, the greatest player in hockey history, had a message for the greatest player in women’s tennis.
“Serena Williams, Willie O’Ree in hockey, Jackie Robinson in baseball,” Gretzky said. “They changed everything. They changed the culture of sports and what Serena did for boys and girls throughout the world is spectacular. Serena, congratulations on a wonderful career.”
The National Bank Open is the lone Canadian stop for the WTA and ATP tours each August, splitting the men’s and women’s events between Toronto and Montreal and alternating the cities each year. Suddenly, Williams’s match on Wednesday night in Toronto became the hottest ticket in sports.
Hale said that after the retirement news broke, the tournament sold more tickets for the Williams-Bencic showdown than it had for any of its men’s matches, notable for a tournament that began in 1881, making it almost as old as Canada itself. (Canada was founded in 1867, and the women’s tournament started in 1892.)
The round-of-32 match was a bigger draw than the entire 2017 women’s tournament, he said.
Hale has been buried in interview requests for Williams — the answer has been “no” — and requests for tickets from athletes, musicians and actors like Adam Sandler currently shooting movies in the city — the answer has been “yes,” to a point.
“We don’t have any space left,” Hale said.
“It’s going to be a really emotional night for her,” he said. “She’s unsure how to handle it, but it’s really going to hit in the moment before the match.”
Fans, who gave Williams two standing ovations before the match began, held signs that read: “Serena Williams for Prime Minister,” “Canada Loves Serena,” and “Queen.”
Hale had a four-hour dinner at Harbour 60, a pricey Toronto steakhouse, with Serena and Venus Williams on Saturday night.
“She didn’t tell me the Vogue piece was coming, but she spoke that retirement was imminent,” he said. “All of the signs were definitely pointing to a U.S. Open retirement. She’s really ready to move forward with the next chapter of her new life. She’s excited, she’s not sad, but she’s going to be very, very emotional tonight. I don’t think it’s hit her yet.”
During Serena Willilams’s straight-sets win over Nuria Parrizas-Diaz of Spain on Monday, much of the crowd was on its feet and bowing toward Williams.
After the match, Williams telegraphed the Vogue article that was hours from dropping, saying that she was getting “closer to the light” and “freedom.”
She is plainly having fun in Toronto. Over the weekend before the tournament began, she and her husband, Alexis Ohanian, and their daughter, Olympia, went to Medieval Times, the theater show with crowns and swords. Then on Monday, she won, for the first time in more than a year. “I forgot what it felt like,” she said.
It was the first time Olympia had sat through a full match, and she low-fived her mother — a go-to move when you’re 4 — after her win. “I was super excited,” Williams said. “It was good for her to have that memory. She’s never had it because I’ve always kept her away.”
One of the most enduring images of this tournament — until Wednesday night — came after Williams was forced to exit the women’s singles final early in 2019 because of back spasms. Her opponent, Andreescu, approached the sideline and asked the 23-time Grand Slam tournament champion if she could give her a hug.
Andreescu, who went on to beat Williams in the 2019 U.S. Open final, recalled her emotional postmatch bonding with Williams after her straight-sets win over Daria Kasatkina of Russia on Tuesday night.
“In Toronto, we had a nice conversation going, and at the U.S. Open she said some very kind things to me in the locker room,” Andreescu said. She added that she felt “grateful to have gotten the chance to play her and connect with her in some way. Maybe I’ll get one more.”
As Williams closes out her career, a scarcity mind-set is setting in. Only a handful of tickets for Wednesday’s match were listed with resellers, suggesting that what could be Williams’s final Canadian match is not for sale at any price.
Williams’s fellow players at the tournament are also afraid they will miss out. Iga Swiatek, the world No. 1, Gauff, Emma Raducanu and the Canadians Fernandez, Rebecca Marino and Carol Zhao have never played against Williams and wistfully said they hoped to share the court with her before it was too late.
The spotlight and the crowd will continue to follow Williams from here to Ohio, and on to New York, where she won her first Grand Slam singles title in 1999 as a 17-year-old.
Marino said that it was fitting that Williams would at least play once more at the U.S. Open and that it would make for a perfect goodbye to the sport. “That’s, I think, the place to do it,” she said.
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