TORONTO — Serena Williams looked out at the sold-out crowd at Sobeys Stadium, searching for the fan who had just shouted "Serena, you're the best!"
"Thank you. I love all of you," said Williams, with a mix of sweat and tears around her eyes, acknowledging the more than 12,500 spectators who watched her final match in Canada.
Williams lost to Switzerland's Belinda Bencic 6-2, 6-4 in the second round of the National Bank Open on Wednesday. Williams, who turns 41 this September, announced her intention to retire at the end of this season on Tuesday.
A video tribute to Williams played on the stadium's video screens before she came out for warmups. It featured words of thanks and congratulations from world No. 11 Coco Gauff, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, and women's tennis pioneer Billie Jean King, among others.
Knowing that the second-round match against the 12th-seeded Bencic might be Williams's last in Canada, fans came out in droves. Signs dotted the stadium with messages like "Thank you, Serena!," "Canada loves you!," and "We will miss you!"
"I love playing here. I've always loved playing here," said Williams on the court after her loss. "I wish I could have played better, but Belinda played so well today."
The 23-time Grand Slam champion received three loud ovations before the match even began: when she walked out on to the court, when she met with Bencic and the chair umpire before warmups, and again when she was formally announced.
"It's just been so memorable," said Williams about the outpouring of love after Vogue magazine published an article she wrote announcing her upcoming retirement.
"Like I said in my article, I'm terrible at goodbyes. But goodbye, Toronto."
Fans weren't the only ones caught up in the moment. Bencic, whose two wins over Williams in their five matches have both come at the National Bank Open, said she was still intimidated by the American who many consider the greatest tennis player of all time.
"It feels like I'm starstruck every time I see her, so it's difficult to play her," said Bencic. "It's difficult to put that aside and just focus on the match.
"I don't know how I then play, because I feel like I'm paralyzed a little bit just watching her."
Williams looked to be in her classic form early on, scoring the match's first point on an ace. Although the American won two games early, she could not keep up with the 25-year-old Bencic.
The second set was more even, with Bencic and Williams tied 3-3, but the Swiss player won back-to-back games. Serving to stay in the match, Williams pumped her fist and yelled to the delight of the partisan crowd as Bencic's failed return made it 5-4.
Williams hit the ball long on match point, bringing an end to the match and her time playing in Canada. It's expected that she will formally end her career after the U.S. Open, which begins on Aug. 29.
"I think the U.S. Open is going to be even more special," said Bencic.
"So good luck to everyone who has to play her," she added with a laugh.
Bianca Andreescu of Mississauga, Ont., is the lone Canadian left in the women's singles tournament. She advanced to the Round of 16 with a 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 win over France's Alizé Cornet in the day's final match.
Andreescu won the event in 2019 when it was last held in Toronto with a victory over Williams. The Canadian said she loves the energy of her hometown crowd.
"I've never played in front of a crowd like this and same went for 2019," said Andreescu. "Hopefully they can continue like this (throughout) the tournament."
Earlier Wednesday, Leylah Fernandez of Laval, Que., was eliminated from the tournament following a 7-6 (4), 6-1 loss to Brazil's Beatriz Haddad Maia.
Fernandez, the 13th seed in Toronto, was playing in her first tournament following a two-month layoff to recover from a stress fracture in her right foot that she sustained at the French Open.
She and her sister Bianca Fernandez then teamed up in the doubles tournament, losing to Andreja Klepač of Slovenia and Alexa Guarachi of Chile 6-1, 6-2.
"It's a little hard today because we just finished with two losses," said Leylah Fernandez. "I'm just happy that I finally was back in competition and that we not only tested out the foot but also the body. The body feels great.
"Of course, not at the level that we want it to be, but at least we know what we need to work."
Haddad Maia will next face world No. 1 Iga Swiatek, who cruised into the third round with a 6-1, 6-2 win over Australian qualifier Ajla Tomljanovic.
Swiatek increased her hardcourt winning streak to 20 matches with a clinical performance, defeating Tomljanovic in just one hour four minutes.
In other early results, 10th seed Gauff beat Kazakhstan's Elena Rybakina 6-4, 6-7 (8), 7-6 (3). Defending champion Camila Giorgi of Italy downed Belgium's Elise Mertens 6-3, 7-5. And seventh seed Jessica Pegula downed fellow American Asia Muhammad 6-2, 7-5.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 10, 2022.
John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press