TORONTO — Karl Hale has been the tournament director at the National Bank Open since 2006 and has never seen anything like the last 24 hours since 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 will play a second-round match against Belinda Bencic of Switzerland on Wednesday night, could be playing 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.
Williams’s farewell tour is underway, started by an as-told-to Vogue cover story for the September issue that was published online Tuesday and titled “Serena’s Farewell.” Williams wrote that she planned to retire from tennis at some point after at least playing in the U.S. Open, which begins Aug. 29.
“I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me,” including working with her venture-capital firm and growing her family, she said.
“I’m gonna relish these next few weeks,” Williams wrote on Instagram.
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 has become 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 has 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 has also become a bigger draw than the entire 2017 women’s tournament, he said.
Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player of all time, reached out immediately, sending a video wishing the greatest women’s tennis player well. Another video is expected to arrive from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, both of which will be shown in a pre-match celebration of Williams, her career and her time in Canada.
Hale has been buried in interview requests for Williams — the answer has been “no” — and requests for tickets from athletes, musicians and actors 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.”
He said the plan was for Williams to not see the video messages but to head to the court only after a standing ovation, because he doesn’t want to distract her from the match.
The stadium north of downtown will pack in 10,000 fans, and the tournament is setting up an outdoor viewing area — for the first time — for another 5,000 people.
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 her 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. Over the weekend before the tournament began, she and her husband, Alexis Ohanian, and their daughter, Olympia, went to Medieval Times, the corny 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.”
Andreescu, who went on to beat Williams in the 2019 U.S. Open final, recalled her emotional post-match bonding with Williams after her straight-set 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 on the tour are also afraid they will miss out. Coco Gauff, Emma Raducanu and the Canadians Leylah 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.
Williams has won this tournament three times, all in Toronto.
“It was like, OK, I want to play a few more matches,” she said. “And I absolutely love playing here. It’s no secret that I’ve had a fabulous time on court and probably even better time off court here in Toronto.”
Depending on how she fares against the 12th-ranked Bencic, the spotlight and the crowd will continue to follow Williams from here to Cincinnati, 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.