TORONTO – Carl Hill has been the tournament director of the National Bank Open since 2006 and hasn’t seen anything like 24 hours after Serena Williams said she was ending her professional tennis career.
“We heard that yesterday morning, and immediately ticket sales rebounded,” Hill said. “In the players’ lounge, I heard the chatter. It’s the first time I’ve seen so many players watching a practice. I trained at nine in the morning, and everyone there was watching it.”
Williams, who played a second-round match against Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic on Wednesday night, took to the court with everyone knowing she might be competing for the last time in front of Canadian tennis fans in this tournament.
“But I hope it doesn’t,” said Hill, who has known Serena and her sister Venus for more than 20 years since they started coming to Toronto.
The stadium just north of the city center packed 12,500 fans, and the tournament set up an outdoor viewing area – for the first time – for another 5,000 people.
Before Serena Williams took to court — which she did with a bowed head and serious expression — a video clip of greetings from retired champ Billie Jean King and some of the Tour’s rising stars, Coco Gauff, Lila Fernandez and Bianca Andreescu, played for the crowd. Wayne Gretzky, the greatest player in hockey history, had a message for the greatest women’s tennis player.
“Serena Williams, Willie Urey in hockey, Jackie Robinson in baseball,” Gretzky said. “They have changed everything. They have changed the culture of sports and what Serena has done for boys and girls around the world has been amazing. Serena, congratulations on a great career.”
The National Bank Open is the only Canadian stop for the WTA and ATP tours each August, splitting men’s and women’s events between Toronto and Montreal and alternating cities each year. Suddenly, Williams’ game Wednesday night in Toronto became the most exciting ticket in the sport.
Hill said that after news of the retirement spread, the tournament sold more tickets for the Williams-Bencic match than it had for any of the men’s matches, famous for a tournament that began in 1881, making it as old as Canada itself. (Canada was founded in 1867, and the women’s championship began in 1892.)
He said the Round of 32 match was a bigger draw than the entire 2017 Women’s Championship.
Hill was buried in interview requests with Williams – the answer was “no” – and requests for tickets from athletes, musicians and actors like Adam Sandler who is currently shooting movies in the city – the answer was somewhat of a “yes.”
“We had nowhere left,” Hill said.
“It will be a really touching night for her,” he said. “She’s not sure how to deal with it, but it will happen in the moment before the match.”
Fans, who gave Williams twice a standing ovation before the match began, carried banners reading “Serena Williams for Prime Minister”, “Canada loves Serena” and “The Queen”.
Hill had a four-hour dinner at Harbor 60, an expensive Toronto steakhouse, with Serena and Venus Williams on Saturday night.
“She didn’t tell me the Vogue article was coming, but she did say retirement was imminent,” he said. All signs were definitely pointing to the US Open’s retirement. She is really ready to move on to the next chapter of her new life. She’s excited, not sad, but she’s going to be very emotional tonight. I don’t think he hit her yet.”
During Serena Williams’ straight-set victory over Spain’s Nuria Barezas Diaz on Monday, many fans got to her feet and bowed to Williams.
After the match, Williams telegraphed a Vogue article that was hours after the fall, saying she was “close to light” and “freedom”.
She obviously enjoys being in Toronto. Over the weekend before the tournament kicks off, she and her husband, Alexis Ohanian, and their daughter Olympia, He went to the Middle AgesTheatrical performance with crowns and swords. Then on Monday she won for the first time in over a year. “I forgot how I felt,” she said.
It was the first time Olympia had sat in a full match, and her mother—who was four—given after her victory. “I was really excited,” Williams said. “It was good for her to have that memory. She never got it because I always kept her away.”
Then came one of the most consistent images of the tournament – as of Wednesday evening Williams was forced out of the women’s singles final Early 2019 due to back cramps. Her opponent, Andreescu, approached the touchline and asked the 23-time Grand Slam champion If you could hug her.
Andreescu, who beat Williams in 2019 US Open Finalrecalled her post-match romance with Williams after her straight sets win over Russia’s Daria Kasatkina on Tuesday night.
“In Toronto, we had a nice chat, and at the US Open, she said some nice things to me in the locker room,” Andreescu said. She added that she was “grateful to have the chance to play it and connect with her in some way. Maybe I’ll get another one.”
With Williams winding down her career, a scarcity mentality began to emerge. Only a few tickets for Wednesday’s game with distributors were listed, indicating that what could be Williams’ last Canadian game is not for sale at any price.
Williams players in the tournament also fear that they will miss the opportunity. World No. 1 Iga Swiatek, Gauff, Emma Raducanu and Canadians Fernandez, Rebecca Marino and Carol Zaw have never played against Williams and sadly said they hope to share the court with her before it’s too late.
The spotlight and fans will continue to follow Williams from here to Ohio, and to New York, where she won her first Grand Slam singles title in 1999 when she was 17.
Marino said it was fitting that Williams would play at least one more time in the US Open, and that it would be a perfect farewell to the sport. “This, I think, is the place to do it,” she said.