Sparkling Serena Williams overcomes tepid start to delight US Open crowd | Serena Williams


As Serena Williams desperately tried to get through the first set of the match that could have spelled the end, she was having a hard time. She had been sucked into an endless service game at 5-3 and all she could do was fight to hold out. She eventually faced her fourth break point of the game, and the pressure increased with each point. And then, just like that, she took Arthur Ashe Stadium back to the past: ace, ace, unreturned serve. Set. Williams walked to her seat, clenching her fists and roaring into the air.

Service, fight and attitude have been some of the fundamental sights in tennis for two and a half decades. After these weeks, they will probably never be seen again.

If there was any doubt about the significance of Williams’ impending departure, the spectacle that greeted her arrival at Arthur Ashe Stadium for her likely final tournament hit the mark. Mike Tyson sat next to Martina Navratilova. Gladys Knight appeared in the background on Midnight Train to Georgia. In Williams’ player box, her daughter, Olympia, appeared in the stands with beads in her braids, a full circle moment.

After Danka Kovinić made her way to Arthur Ashe Stadium to play golf, Williams’ entrance was preceded by a video narrated by Queen Latifah. She entered in a suit glittering in diamonds from head to toe, from her hair to the intoxicated cape that dragged her to court. Both Kanye West’s Diamonds from Sierra Leone and a deafening, prolonged roar from the crowd were the soundtrack to her arrival. As they warmed up, the screens on the edge of Arthur Ashe Stadium read “the greatest of all time” and the announcer mentioned Williams’ performance in great detail.

Williams has contested the biggest games in the world, she’s worked her way from the brink and she’s held all four grand slams at once. At the height of her prowess, when domination was her middle name, her mental strength was unparalleled. But she’s never experienced anything like this, playing with the knowledge that this is the end.

Under that pressure, she did well and performed much better than on her other recent outings. Her nerves were of course present from the start and she made two double faults in her opening game. Even after being immediately led through a break, she was unable to settle down. Every roar from the crowd seemed at first an unwelcome reminder of the significance of this moment, and when her forehand leaked casual errors, she seemed overwhelmed at first.

But Williams declined to end her career with a first-round loss. She has struggled in the past few months, winning just once in her previous three singles events and being beaten 6-4, 6-0 in Cincinnati two weeks ago by Emma Raducanu. “I was very emotional in Toronto and Cincinnati,” she said afterwards. “It was very difficult. I’m not saying it’s not difficult now. It’s still extremely difficult because I love being out there.”

Gayle King interviews Serena Williams on the track after her win. Photo: Justin Lane/EPA

Her desperation to end her career on a positive note was palpable. It was audible in her little footsteps squeaking at every point on the track, the drop shots she chased in full sprint and the grunts that highlighted each key moment. From her box, Rennae Stubbs, her new advisor for just one tournament, took advantage of the new coaching rules to loudly shout positive affirmations.

Amid the crowd’s constant screams, Kovinić was composed and present, irritating Williams with her consistency, length and thumping first serve. But after her lukewarm start, Williams slowly found her service and the free points it unlocked. She recovered from a breakdown to win the first set and after a fierce battle with the forehand, with the errors flowing freely, she began to unload with increasing freedom. Towards the end of the match, she played as she always should, pushing herself from behind the baseline.

There was a time, not so long ago, when any win from Williams was only expected. How quickly things change. As Williams processed her win, she struck a very different note from her usual outlook. “Everything is a bonus for me,” she said. The feeling was mutual from the audience. When she reached the match point, almost every fan in Arthur Ashe stood up and looked at the very last point on their feet, stretching their necks to get one last look at Williams in full flow.

After a career of crushing expectations, Williams has achieved too much not to believe in herself when she then takes on Anett Kontaveit, the world’s No. 2 out of form. She heads to their match in the second round, determined to have at least one last autograph moment. Even now, at 40, with her recent struggles, it’s hard to cast doubt on her ability to do so.

After the win, Williams remained on the track for the ceremony where Gayle King and Billie Jean King spoke and an Oprah-recorded video played. Olympia, Williams’ husband, Alexis Ohanian, and her sister, Isha, were standing next to the court. Williams addressed the audience, and in the middle of her comments, she succinctly underlined why this makes so much sense. “I just want people to be inspired,” Williams said. “I’m from Compton, California. And I made it.”

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voice
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.


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