Serena Williams Rises to the Occasion, Like So Many Times Before

It was an opening night at the U.S. Open that could have been the closing night of Serena Williams’s 27-year professional singles career.

But win or lose, Williams was getting the ceremonial treatment in Arthur Ashe Stadium. The guest list and laudatory tone were set; the protocol and the videos narrated by Queen Latifah and Oprah Winfrey were in place.

It felt closer to a rock concert than a first-round tennis match as Williams walked into the sold-out stadium where she has experienced triumph and heartache in fairly equal measure only to be greeted this time by perhaps the loudest extended roar of support she has experienced in her nearly 41 years.

“Really overwhelming,” Williams said. “I could feel it in my chest, and it was a really good feeling. It’s a feeling I will never forget and that meant a lot to me.”

Williams and the CBS journalist Gayle King after the match.Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

It was the message and gift that the crowd of nearly 24,000 in Ashe Stadium clearly wanted to deliver with Williams nearing the finish line.

A loss to the 80th-ranked Danka Kovinic would have been no surprise. Williams has struggled with her movement and timing since returning to action in June after nearly a one-year hiatus.

In her early comeback tournaments, she had looked late to the ball and late to the realization that time is undefeated. In her last match before the U.S. Open, she was beaten, 6-4, 6-0, in the first round of the Western and Southern Open in Mason, Ohio, by a player less than half her age: 19-year-old Emma Raducanu, last year’s big-surprise U.S. Open women’s singles champion.

New York, despite the valedictory mood, was in danger of becoming a downer, and Williams was hardly reassuring in the early going against Kovinic as she went down a service break with double faults and unforced errors piling up.

But with Kovinic serving and just one point away from a 4-2 first-set lead, Williams struck a backhand return that landed on the outside edge of the baseline for a winner that got her back to deuce.

Serena Williams’s Farewell to Tennis

The U.S. Open could be the tennis star’s last professional tournament after a long career of breaking boundaries and obliterating expectations.

  • Decades of Greatness: Over 27 years, Serena Williams dominated generation after generation of opponents and changed the way women’s tennis is played, winning 23 Grand Slam singles titles and cementing her reputation as the queen of comebacks.
  • An Enduring Influence: From former and current players’ memories of a young Williams to the new fans she drew to tennis, Williams left a lasting impression.
  • Her Fashion: Since she turned professional in 1995, Williams has used her clothes as a statement of self and a weapon of change.

It was a slightly mis-hit shot that easily could have produced a different outcome, but the winner rattled Kovinic, who double faulted twice in a row.

It was 3-3 in a hurry, and Williams took the hint and the momentum, sweeping the next three games to take the first set and then clicking into a gear she has not experienced in quite some time to take command.

Spectators watched Williams on a big screen set up at Hudson Yards in Manhattan.Credit…Anna Watts for The New York Times

Troubled by knee pain in Ohio, she looked significantly quicker on Monday. She made errors on the move but at least she was moving. Though this was hardly vintage Williams, there were certainly nods to past glories as she began ripping ferocious full-cut return winners, closing on high balls with cocksure swing volleys and even holding serve at love.

Raducanu, who barely made an unforced error and rarely had to hit a second serve in the last tournament Williams played before Monday night, was certainly a higher hurdle to clear than Kovinic, who finished with eight double faults and put only 44 percent of her first serves in play.

But this, by the end, was an improved Williams, and it was evident her confidence grew as the match progressed in this grand yet so-familiar space.

She was asked if the idea of retirement was now causing her less pain. In Toronto, shortly after her announcement, she broke down in tears at the post-match ceremony after losing to Belinda Bencic in the second round.

“I do feel different; I think I was really emotional in Toronto and Cincinnati, and it was very difficult,” Williams said. “It’s extremely difficult still, because I absolutely love being out there. The more tournaments I play, I feel like the more I can belong out there. That’s a tough feeling to have and to leave knowing the more you do it, the more you can shine. But it’s time for me, you know, to evolve to the next thing.”

Much has changed in Ashe Stadium since Williams made her U.S. Open debut in 1997, playing doubles with her older sister Venus. The court, once green, is now blue. The stadium, once fully exposed to the elements and swirling winds, now features a retractable roof that has changed the acoustics and the airflow even when the roof remains open.

There are screens and more screens: on the walls and in the hands of the fans. And as Williams approached the end of this first-round victory that no one was taking for granted this year, many of the spectators rose to their feet as she prepared to return Kovinic’s serve on match point, holding their phones aloft to capture the moment.

It was a rare, perhaps unprecedented scene — a head start on a standing ovation — and Williams delivered closure, finishing off the 6-3, 6-3 victory and then celebrating with a victory jig before the start of the bigger celebration — of her place in tennis and the wider culture. It was a surprise to Williams, who sat courtside in her chair as Gayle King and Billie Jean King took turns offering tributes.

“You touched our hearts and minds to be our authentic self,” Billie Jean King said. “To use our voices. To dream big. Thank you for your leadership and commitment to diversity, equality and inclusion and especially for women and women of color. Most of all, thank you for sharing your journey with every single one of us.”

Tamara King, a 42-year-old African American woman, was among those in Ashe Stadium. Once a Monica Seles fan, she soon became a Williams fan after Serena and Venus turned pro in the 1990s. After hearing that Serena’s retirement was imminent, she said she spent $3,000 on a ticket to Monday’s match.

Multiple times throughout the night, she was moved to tears.

“Never thought that I would be able to pay to be able to sit and see somebody that looks like me be loved by so many people at a court like Arthur Ashe Stadium,” Tamara King said. “It’s just full circle, because you know Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe were the pioneers of this. And now we have Serena and Venus, who have passed the torch to like Coco, which is just amazing for Black women. It’s amazing for tennis. Hopefully, it’ll continue.”

King was referring to Coco Gauff, the rising 18-year-old American star who reached the French Open final this year and won her first-round match in Ashe Stadium earlier in the day, beating the French qualifier Leolia Jeanjean. But Gauff, like King and so many others, was watching Williams on a Monday when the Open set a night-session record on the grounds with 29,402 paying spectators.

For their money, they got a match and what amounted to a farewell party — even if Williams is not quite ready to say farewell just yet.

Despite the first-person Vogue essay earlier this month indicating that the end was near, she was still not prepared late Monday night to confirm that this will be her last tournament.

“I’ve been pretty vague about it, right?” Williams said in the playful tone that is usually reserved for good nights at the office. “I’m going to stay vague, because you never know.”

Williams will face No. 2 seed Anett Kontaveit in the second round on Wednesday.Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

What is clear is that this tournament is not over. She has entered the doubles draw with Venus, with whom she has already won 14 Grand Slam doubles titles. And on Wednesday, she will face the No. 2 seed Anett Kontaveit in the second round of the singles tournament. That is perhaps less daunting than it appears on the draw sheet.

Kontaveit, an Estonian who resides in London and has the English accent to prove it, has a powerful baseline game but has reserved her best performances for lesser occasions. She has been past the fourth round only once in a Grand Slam tournament, reaching the quarterfinals of the 2020 Australian Open, and has not been past the second round in the first three majors this season, in part because of the after effects of contracting Covid-19.

She is also well aware that Wednesday night will be a new experience on two levels. She, like most of Williams’s opponents on tour these days, has never faced her, and Kontaveit has never faced any opponent in an atmosphere like this.

“I was really rooting for her to win today,” Kontaveit said. “I mean, this is the last chance. Better late than never.”

If the U.S. Open organizers threw this big a bash for Williams after a first-round victory, what might they do if she beats the No. 2 seed?

Kris Rhim contributed reporting.

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