“After I lost the second set, I thought, ‘Oh my god, I have to do my best because this could be it,'” Williams told ESPN in an on-field interview after the game.
Williams looked better this year than previous competitions, where she was still trying to shake the rust from a long break.
In world No. 2 Kontaveit, however, Williams faced a much tougher test and was undoubtedly the underdog on paper, but certainly not with the full house at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
A rambunctious but well-mannered crowd cheered her at every point.
She referred to the lengthy layoff in her interview Wednesday, but said, “I like a challenge.”
Williams then takes on Australian Ajla Tomljanovic in the third round. Tomljanovic, who played alongside Williams on Wednesday, defeated Russian Evgeniya Rodina 1-6, 6-2, 7-5.
And Williams doesn’t just play singles; she opens the doubles with her sister Venus Williams on Thursday evening.
“I need more games,” she told ESPN. “I like the challenge. Yeah, I haven’t played many games, but I’ve practiced really well. In my last few games, it just didn’t come together. I’m like, this isn’t me.”
Things have changed since she started playing at the Open, she said.
“I’ve never liked the word retirement. It doesn’t feel like a modern word to me. I’ve seen this as a transition, but I want to be sensitive to how I use that word, which means something very specific and important to a community of people,” Williams said in the Vogue article published earlier this month.
“Perhaps the best word to describe what I’m up to is evolution. I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving from tennis to other things that are important to me,” she said.
At her post-game press conference on Monday, Williams was asked if this is definitely her last tournament.
“Yeah, I’ve been pretty vague about it, haven’t I?” she said with a smile. “I’m staying vague, because you never know.”
The opening round win over Kovinić was the best Serena Williams has seen since coming back from injury. She has managed to win just one game since returning to the track in June and has not been able to come close to the form that helped her win her last Grand Slam title in 2017.
Although Williams was far from that level in Monday’s win over Kovinić, it certainly gave her hope that her last dance at the US Open could be extended.
One of the greatest tennis players ever, Williams has won 23 grand slam singles titles and the US Open six times, most recently in 2014. Now 40 years old, Williams’ career will come full circle as her last game – in any match. round that turns out to be — is played at the site of the first of her grand slam victories, the 1999 US Open.
Then just a teenager, Williams burst onto the scene to stun world No. 1 Martina Hingis in the final and take the first step on her path to two decades of dominance.
Kontaveit is a rising star
After Kontaveit won her first Tour title in 2017, her real breakthrough year came in 2021 when she won four WTA tournaments to rise through the rankings.
An aggressive player with a varied play and powerful forehand, Kontaveit first broke into the world’s top 10 in November 2021 and has been a mainstay ever since.
She’s on a career-high ranking of No. 2 — the highest ranking in history for an Estonian — and at 26 she’ll certainly be looking to improve on her best show at a grand slam, a quarter-final at the 2020 Australian Open.
Kontaveit looked impressive in her opening round US Open win over Romania’s Jaqueline Cristian, losing just three games, saying after her win she “rooted” Williams in her first round match and was “very excited” is to play against her.
“I’ve never played against her. I mean, this is the last chance,” she told reporters. “Better late than never.
“I’m really looking forward to it. I think the atmosphere is going to be great. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Steve Almasy of CNN contributed to this report.