She double-faulted more than she would have liked. Her 25 unforced errors weren’t pretty. She played long, grueling games that, at one time in her singular career, may have been over in a flash.
But Serena Williams will leave the U.S. Open, her final tournament, with one victory at least.
Feeding off the energy of a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium Monday night in New York City, Williams exhibited plenty of her signature fire—a fist pump here, a shout of “come on!” there. The old dominance was also on show: she won the last eight points of the match to take care of business against her first round opponent, Danka Kovinic of Montenegro, 6-3, 6-3.
The relatively routine early win possessed the energy of a final, as all of her matches at this tournament doubtless will. After this last Open run, Williams has announced that she is walking away from tennis—and that includes competing in doubles with her sister Venus.
Monday marked the second-highest single-day attendance in U.S. Open history, with a total of 71,332 spectators for the combined day and evening sessions. The latter session, though, set an all-time, opening night attendance record of 29,402, with Williams the big draw. Fans held up placards reading “We ♥️ Serena” on all sides of the stadium.
“When I walked out, the reception was really overwhelming. It was loud and I could feel it in my chest,” said Williams. “It’s a feeling I’ll never forget.”
After the match, Australians Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis had to wait for their duel to begin—one that Kyrgios would win in straight sets—as the U.S. Open threw a surprise tribute for Williams on center court. Gayle King hosted. Oprah Winfrey narrated a video. Billie Jean King herself said a few words, recalling the first time they met, in 1988, when Serena was six years old. “Her serve is by far the most beautiful serve in the history of our sport,” King said, to the delight of the crowd. “And guess what? You’re just beginning!”
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Williams got off to a jittery start. A first round exit wouldn’t have damaged her legacy. But no one in the celebrity-laden crowd—Queen Latifah, Gladys Knight, Hugh Jackman, and Mike Tyson were among those in the seats—wanted to see that.
She faulted on five straight serves in the opening game and somehow held. Kovinic broke her serve twice to go up 3-2. Williams gave up a double-break point; Kovinic won back the advantage. Williams then drilled a soft second serve for a winner, to bring things back to deuce. Kovinic then double-faulted twice to even things up 3-3. Williams, back on serve, didn’t lose a point the rest of the set.
After she finished off that first set with two aces and serve up the middle—in the 16th point of a back-and-forth game—that Kovnic lofted into the net, Williams double pumped her fists. The roar of the crowd was ear-splitting.
The second set moved more briskly for Williams. She kicked her knees up in celebration when Kovinic sent a backhand into the net to end the match.
Williams hit enough angular winners to fend off Kovinic. But she’ll need much more magic against a tougher opponent, second-seeded Anett Kontaveit of Estonia, on Wednesday. Not that she wanted to dwell too much on the challenges ahead.
“At this point, honestly, everything is a bonus for me,” Williams said. “It’s good that I was able to get this under my belt. I’m just not even thinking about that. I’m just thinking about this moment. I think it’s good for me just to live in the moment now.”
She’s certainly earned that.
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