I was there for Serena Williams' low point. It was the semifinal of the 2009 U.S. Open, where she screamed at a line judge who had correctly called her for a foot fault on a big point: "I'm going to take this f-ing ball," Williams yelled, "and shove it down your f-ing throat."
Only she didn't say "f-ing." Who knew then that someday I'd miss that Williams? That's where things stand now.
Williams withdrew from the U.S. Open Wednesday, saying her torn hamstring still hasn't healed. Her body is breaking down. Her mind is breaking down. Her nerve is breaking down.
This isn't the Williams anyone should see. It's time to go, Serena. It's time to retire.
It's important to know when to say when. This is it.
"After careful consideration and following the advice of my doctors and medical team, I have decided to withdraw from the U.S. Open to allow my body to heal completely from a torn hamstring," Williams wrote on social media. "I'll see you soon."
Not at another major though, please. The ends of amazing careers can seem to come suddenly. Not everyone is Tom Brady or Phil Mickelson, winning into their 40s and giving everyone a prolonged chance to say goodbye.
Williams will turn 40 next month, and if you haven't taken the chance to say goodbye, then shame on you.
It's not right that her career is boiling down to the chase for one last major title. She has won 23, and Margaret Court holds the record at 24.
Let's face facts: She's not going to get it. She isn't going to win another major.
She doesn't need it. No one thinks Court was better than Williams anyway. She has already proven all she needs to. Was she the greatest player of all time? I'll say yes, but Steffi Graf was there with her.
We're at five years now of Williams trying to run down a record she doesn't need, and it's costing her too much. Five years of watching her lose big matches, fall apart mentally, slow down, and break down?
Jack Nicklaus once said he didn't ever want to be a ceremonial golfer. He wanted people always to see him as a fighter and champion.
Williams seems to be for show now. She has earned the right to leave whenever and however she wants, but the longer we see her this way, the more people will remember her this way.
Some people remember Willie Mays sticking around too long. Probably the greatest baseball player of all time, Mays was reduced to being in the outfield, stumbling around. His amazing over-the-shoulder catch is forever stuck in baseball's memory. Those final years are, too.
Serena means way more than an irrelevant number. I want to remember the classic Williams photo, on one knee, pumped fist, screaming. She is a strong, smart, healthy, fighting champion. Can't we just stick with that?
We've seen Williams grow from the younger teenage sister to a loving mother and everything in between. I'm not looking to write a career obituary here, but when you look at women's tennis now, you see how well Williams — and her sister, Venus — have taken care of the sport.
Tennis is the only women's sport truly in the American sporting mainstream year round, even during non-Olympic years. American women's tennis, once the playground for white women, now has Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, and Coco Gauff, too, about to grow into a champion.
She hasn't won a major since the 2017 Australian Open, while she was early in her pregnancy. At 35, she was the oldest woman to win a major. It's not reasonable to think she'll win at 40.
I'm remembering so many things. I was lucky enough to see so much of it up close and personal and to talk with her several times along the way.
She led the way for minorities in tennis. She led the way for strong women in sports. She was a champion who wasn't a dangerous size zero, so she was important in the mental health of young girls with potential body-image issues. Now she has kept fighting after becoming a mother.
I'm thinking about her one-way rivalry with Maria Sharapova, her crip-walk at Wimbledon. She once talked about the thrill of possibly playing in front of the queen at Wimbledon; she had been working on her curtsy. Then the queen came to Centre Court. Wimbledon pushed Williams to an outer court.
She stayed after her match that day and signed autographs.
In that 2009 U.S. Open, Williams had spent the summer in her usual role as the world's best and most popular women's tennis player, though she was ranked No. 2 in the computer rankings.
"Quite frankly, everyone knows I'm the best," she said at the time. She was right and everyone knew it, but she wanted to get every last doubter to believe her and to love her. She reached the U.S. Open semifinal and was being outplayed by Kim Clijsters, a beloved player who had returned from having a baby.
Williams foot-faulted on the second-to-last point of the match. She did. I was sitting right there on the line and saw it clearly. She was going to lose, and she screamed at the line judge who had made the call and kept screaming until she was assessed a point penalty on match point.
So she had lost. The memories are good now. Even the bad ones.It's time, Serena.