NEW YORK -- As the match slipped away from the Williams sisters on Thursday night, the crowd oscillated between desperation and brief exhilaration.
Moments of greatness from Venus and Serena were greeted with cacophonous celebration. But it was the times when things went astray that betrayed the real emotion of this occasion.
Within Arthur Ashe, there was a collective acceptance that we'll likely never see the two together on the court again.
As the Czech duo of Lucie Hradecka and Linda Noskova edged away, unforced errors or lost break points were met with murmuring encouragement from the crowd, willing their heroines to summon another tennis miracle. To grant them one more encore.
Barring a change of heart, Serena has indicated she will leave the sport in the next 10 days. Venus' immediate future is unclear. She has taken a supportive role in Serena's farewell tour, one in the shadow of her younger sister.
While Serena's two victorious singles matches at the US Open have been under the lights amid an atmosphere akin to a once-in-a-generation boxing fight, Venus' defeat to Alison van Uytvanck on Tuesday was in the midday sun in front of a half-full Arthur Ashe.
There was no welcoming montage for her -- but then again there has been no announcement regarding her future. When asked earlier in the week whether she too was contemplating her own evolution, she responded she was just focusing on the doubles with Serena.
"I think Venus deserves more credit," said one fan who'd traveled from Nebraska this morning to see her heroines. "But this has been Serena's tournament -- Venus is being a good sister."
That's been her role over the past year. While Venus has been developing her businesses and continuing her return to tennis, Serena who has been driving her own narrative around her future in, and away from, the sport.
It was Serena's call for the duo to play doubles here -- "she's the boss," Venus says.
"I feel like it's been very important for her to be a part of this," Serena said Monday. "She's my rock. I'm super excited to play with her and just do that again."
Venus of course answered the call. "We're a huge influence on each other, and I'm a huge influence on her," Venus said earlier this week. But when it came to Serena's "evolution" Venus knew how to play that.
"I just kind of felt like my role is to make sure I don't influence her in any way, and that this decision needs to be all hers and her family's," Venus said. "The newest part of the family, I guess I would say, because obviously we are family."
"What matters most is to do things on her own terms," Venus added.
We saw that on Thursday. It was Serena who led the two to practice. It was Serena who took the lead on their entrance to Arthur Ashe. But it was Venus who led them off at the end.
There's an inescapable nostalgia around these two, especially in this part of the world. While Venus' proudest tennis memories might be at Wimbledon, the two are beloved here in New York.
Before the sisters entered, a montage of a snapshot of their lives narrated by Questlove played out on the court. The two Czech players did their best to stay focused while the silverware-laden clips rolled above them. The montage tried to sum up the Williams sisters' legacy in 71 seconds. Had Noskova's attention wavered for the briefest second, she'd have seen a host of footage from before she was alive. By the time she was born in November 2004, the sisters already had 10 singles Slams and six doubles titles to their names.
"This is a 2-woman wrecking crew," said Questlove in the montage. "Their impact on the game 2 vast 2 even begin 2 describe. We've all been 2 lucky as for 2 decades we've watched 2 of the greatest athletes, showing us how 2 can become 1."
It finished with Questlove making one last request: "PS It's not 2 late 2 change your mind. Just our 2 cents."
For Serena, in all likelihood, this is it. But Venus might well play on. She has been fielding questions about retirement for years now. Since her return to competitive tennis -- her first match back in 11 months due to injury was at this year's Wimbledon in the mixed doubles -- the line of questioning has shifted to figuring out why she's back and what her motivation is to continue playing this sport.
At Wimbledon she was motivated by the sight of the grass, and Serena playing. On other occasions she says she's back because of a love for tennis. She frequently uses the word "grateful" whenever asked how she's feeling.
But this week there was that old steely resolve. When asked what was driving her now, she answered: "Three letters -- W-I-N. That's it. Very simple."
On Thursday, Venus' goal was to "hold my side of the court and be a good sister." The competitive fire is burning as bright as it ever has for these two, and though they fell to a straight-sets defeat, it was not for want of intensity, focus or desire. They faced a unit who played with precision and without any sense of emotion. Hradecka and Noskova sent the Williams sisters all over the court and deserved their 7-6 (5), 6-4 win.
For so long, the Williams sisters have resembled their very own Tour de France team -- at times one will be sprinting ahead, while the other stays in the slipstream. On other occasions they'd be sprinting against each other. Sometimes one would be flying on the court while the other would be supporting her off it. Venus called it the "exchange of energy and exchange of giving" on Tuesday.
With Venus' US Open run coming to an end, it'll be her helping Serena to prepare for her third-round match against Ajla Tomljanovic on Friday. Venus will be in her box as usual, just as Serena has done for her before and will likely do in the future.
It feels as though Venus isn't ready to be done with tennis. Back in 2021 at Wimbledon she said, "When it's my last match, I will let you know. I'll whisper it in your ear."
Had she whispered it on Thursday evening, the whole place would have fallen silent to listen. Such is the collective control the Williams sisters still have on their adoring public, which was hoping for one last performance of their greatest hits. Serena still has at least one more in her; Venus might yet be back next year for one more tour.
But with a wave to the crowd as they walked off Ashe, it was an understated gesture that put the finishing touches to the final act of one of tennis' most dominant joint forces.