TDuring a breathless, intense first set in what could have been the last singles match of her career, Serena Williams stared at world No. 2, Anett Kontaveit, and responded to her challenge with an impeccable performance. In the second set, however, she barely lasted. Saving a break point at 1-3 with a sweet, curling ace, she raised her hands to the sky, furious that she couldn’t find that shot every time she served.
If this were another 40-year-old in tennis history, with the rust of a one-year layoff and the nerves of her last event, such flaws would be expected. But this is Serena Williams. Not only did she stick to stratospheric standards, but somehow completely met them on the frenzied second night of her residency at Arthur Ashe Stadium. By beating Kontaveit, she postponed her singles retirement for another round by producing at least one last legendary moment in a career filled with them.
After the magnificence of her opening round win, with the on-field ceremony and a speech from Billie Jean King, the second round felt different. The crowd was a little more muted, not just there to say goodbye, while Williams was laser-focused. She was locked in right away during the high intensity first set, a set full of quality shots from both but dominated by the Williams service – she is still, at 40 years old, the best server in the world. Under stifling pressure, she sealed the tiebreaker as she has so many times over the years – an unreturned serve followed by an ace.
To her credit, Kontaveit played an impeccable second set, flashing winners from both wings and kiss lines, but Williams responded simply by raising her level further and managing the match extremely well at the end. In the last games, she had taken full control of the baseline and wiped out Kontaveit’s serve until the end.
An achievement that is all the more remarkable given its limitations. Her first serve was enchanting, but in the first set she averaged only 160 km/h. She hasn’t served much under pressure in the past year, so she was extremely cautious at first, with precision and percentage more important than power. Her movement, historically one of her greatest assets, has been reduced significantly, but she still found a way to dig a 19-stroke rally deep into the third set when she needed it most. Despite her lack of competitive fitness, she was a rock in the decisive moments.
Over the course of her two hours and 27 minutes on the court, she played all the hits at least once more: the aces and vicious return winners she’d saved for key points, the roar and fear, her heart on her diamond-encrusted sleeves. Midway through the third set, Williams became frustrated with the electronic line calling and let the umpire, Alison Hughes, know. She then returned to baseline and channeled her anger into winning tennis.
It was especially amazing when you consider how far she’s looked from such a form since she got back. Williams lost in the first round of Wimbledon, was easily swept off the table in Toronto by Belinda Bencic and then dismantled 6-4, 6-0 by Emma Raducanu in Cincinnati. She has described the final weeks of her career as being extremely difficult to deal with.
Williams arrived in New York with little confidence, but with one last chance to impress in the final stretch of her career, and no more chances of redemption. The pressure could have been stifling, but, as she has so often in her career, she took the opportunity. Her success came from seeing her final tournament as a bonus rather than a burden it could have been. “I’ve had a big red X on my back since I won the US Open in ’99,” she said. “It’s been there my entire career, because I won my first grand slam early in my career. But here it is different. I feel like I’ve already won.”
She finished with a swing, tearing Kontaveit’s serve apart in the final game and taking her win with a backhand return winner. When former player Mary Joe Fernandez dictated the on-court interview, her presence alone was a reminder of Williams’ absurd longevity. Fernandez is 51 years old and she has been retired for 22 years, but in 1999 she and Williams were rivals. She asked Williams if she was surprised by her level on the pitch, which led to a laugh and a very sharp look. “I’m just Serena,” she said.
On Thursday night, Williams will return to the same venue, at the same time as her sister, Venus, as they compete for the final time in doubles, a spectacle that is perhaps even more emotional and essential than singles. She will then take on Ajla Tomljanovic from Australia on Friday. It could be the night she finally says goodbye, or the next step in a final legendary run. Anyway, on Wednesday night she gave the world at least one final demonstration of the unforgettable sight of Serena Williams in full swing.