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If Serena Williams Keeps Playing Like This, She Has a Shot at Equaling the All-Time Grand Slam Record

3 minute read

Serena Williams might just do it: cap off her singular career with a fairy-tale U.S. Open victory that will be talked about for years to come.

Her 23 Grand Slam wins already constitute the record for the Open Era—the modern period of tennis that begins in 1968. But, after what we saw in the second round of the U.S. Open, it isn’t too fanciful to think that she could tie Margaret Court’s all-time Grand Slam record of 24.

Williams knocked off the world’s No. 2 player, Anett Kontaveit, 7-6 (4), 2-6, 6-2, Wednesday night to advance to the third round of what she has said will be her final tournament. She’ll face Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia, who is ranked No. 46 in the world, on Friday.

“I’m rising to the challenge,” Williams said in her post-match, on-court interview. “I have absolutely nothing to lose.”

Think about it: who can beat her? Women’s tennis currently has no player as crushingly dominant as Williams was in her prime. Since 2019, nine different players have won the 14 Grand Slam titles. Kontaveit insists she was pleased with her performance, but Williams was just better, especially in the decisive third set.

While the world no. 2 broke Williams in the first game of their second set, and went on to dominate it and tie up the match, Williams delivered a strong riposte to open up the third. She struck a pair of winners to hold serve, and the crowd began buzzing with the realization that Williams would not simply roll over and bask in the goodbye accolades. Instead, she went up 2-0 in the set.

There was no denying who the New York City crowd was rooting for. “It was really hard,” said Kontaveit, in playing front of spectators that were less hostile to her than devoted to Williams. “It was something I’ve never experienced before.”

Read More: What Serena Williams Gave The World

Things got a little dicey for Williams in her next service game, when she lost a 40-0 advantage thanks to two unforced errors, and then lost the game on a third. But to her credit, she shook off that mistake and broke Konaveit again, for a 3-1 lead.

Williams won four straight points on her next service game, to go up 4-1. She hit a 108 miles-per-hour service winner, and then another strong serve to force a Kontaveit error. Kontaveit looked defenseless. The coup de grâce came three games later, when Williams crushed a soft Kontaveit second serve right past her opponent, with a backhand.

Before the start of the tournament, Williams mentioned that she was feeling good about her practices. Now, the quality of her work is on full display.

She looked almost exponentially better Wednesday night than she did in the opening round Monday, where she had to overcome early nerves and sloppy mistakes.

On Wednesday, she hit the ball more crisply, and moved with more verve. Early in the match, she toyed with Kontaveit on one point, in classic Williams fashion, striking balls from the baseline, sending Kontaveit pinballing back and forth and wearing her down. Williams won the point. Kontaveit had to wipe the sweat off her brow.

“I just feel like I have had a big red X on my back since I won the U.S. Open in ’99,” said Williams. “But here it’s different. I feel like I’ve already won, figuratively, mentally.”

If her game stays on this trajectory, that victory could also be literal. Watch out.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com