The 23-time Grand Slam singles champion leaves an indelible mark not only in tennis, but in the whole sport.
Tomljanovic, who won over three hours in the match 7-5 6-7 (4) 6-1, advances to the US Open round of 16 for the first time.
“I don’t think so,” she said, “but you never know.”
In a happy, tearful interview, she thanked her parents, saying she was very grateful to them for starting it all.
She credited her older sister, Venus Williams, for her success.
“I wouldn’t be Serena if there was no Venus,” she said. “She’s the only reason Serena Williams has ever existed.”
Tomljanovic said she regrets that “I love Serena as much as I love you guys.”
“What you did for me, for the sport of tennis, is unbelievable,” she said in her on-court interview. “I never thought I’d have a chance to play her in her last match when I remember watching her as a kid in all those finals, so this is a surreal moment for me.”
Tomljanovic was asked how she handled the occasion of being in this electric environment at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“I thought she was going to beat me, you know,” Tomljanovic said. “The pressure wasn’t on me. It’s Serena. I didn’t think I was – until the last point I knew she was really in a good position to win even when she’s 5-1 down. I don’t know how many match points I need to finish, but that’s just what it is. It’s the best ever.”
“I’m just Serena,” she said soberly, a quote that would undoubtedly go down as one of the most memorable in the sport.
This ability to find other gear and dig deeper in the toughest moments has provided the bedrock of Williams’ continued success over more than 20 years on the Tour.
She showed the same grit and perseverance on Friday as 46th seed Tomljanovic was at the top of her game.
Williams, arguably the greatest tennis player of all time, settled for five points before a volley finished it off.
“I tried,” Williams said. “Wheel played a little better.”
The crowd of 23,859 inside Arthur Ashe Stadium for the evening session tried for Williams for another win, but that night, the winner of 847 career games and 73 titles was the second best.
Given the level of her coming to the US Open – just one win since her return to the ring in June after a year with injury – it was fair to assume that Williams’ opening round match against Danka Kovinic would be little more than an emotional farewell. From tennis to the 23-time Grand Slam champion.
But being “only Serena,” Williams produced her best tennis of the season to outsmart Kovinich and stretch her last dance in New York by two days.
Then came Kontaveit, ranked No. 2 in the world and one of the toughest players on the tour. The Estonian will provide a tougher test than Kovinich and Williams undoubtedly went into their match as the big underdog.
Surely, after two decades of brilliance at the top, this is where Williams’ career will end? Of course it doesn’t. She is, after all, “only Serena.”
In her three-set win over Kontaveit, Williams raised her tennis game to a place many thought she might no longer be able to reach. The accuracy and power of her widely feared transmission seemed to be back, as did her speed around the field.
Tomljanovic reached number 38 this season and had some notable success in 2022, including the quarter-final rounds at Wimbledon and the recent Cincinnati Open.
On Friday she was consistent as she made only 30 unforced errors to Williams’ 51.
She will face Russian Lyudmila Samsonova in the round of 16. Samsonova defeated Aleksandra Krunic 6-3, 6-3.
CNN’s Matthias Gries contributed to this report.
“Student. Incurable problem solver. Amateur baconaholic. Introvert. Infuriatingly humble music fanatic.”