“After I lost the second set, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I have to give it my best effort because this could be it,'” Williams told ESPN in an on-court, post-match interview.
Williams looked better than in previous matches this year, where she was still trying to shake off the rust from a long layoff.
In Kontaveit, on the other hand, Williams faced a much sterner test and was definitely the underdog on paper but certainly not with the full house at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
A boisterous but well behaved crowd cheered her every point.
She referred to the long layoff in her interview Wednesday but said, “I love a challenge.”
Williams will next face Australian Ajla Tomljanovic in the third round. Tomljanovic, who played at the same time as Williams on Wednesday, defeated Russian Evgeniya Rodina 1-6, 6-2, 7-5.
And Williams doesn’t just play singles; she will open doubles play with her sister Venus Williams on Thursday night.
“I need more matches,” she told ESPN. “I love getting up to the challenge. Yeah, I haven’t played a lot of matches, but I’ve been practicing really well. In my last few matches, it just hasn’t come together. I’m like, This is not me.”
Things have changed since she started playing at the Open, she said.
“I never liked the word retirement. It doesn’t seem like a modern word to me. I thought of it as a transition, but I want to be sensitive about how I use that word, which means something very specific. and important to a community of people,” Williams said in the Vogue article published earlier this month.
“Maybe the best word to describe what I’m doing is development. I’m here to tell you that I’m developing away from tennis, towards other things that are important to me,” she said.
At her post-match press conference on Monday, Williams was asked if this was definitely her last tournament.
“Yeah, I was pretty vague about that, huh?” she said with a smile. “I’ll stay vague because you never know.”
The opening round win over Kovinić was the best Williams has looked since making her return from injury. She has managed to win just one match since returning to the circuit in June and has been unable to come close to the form that helped her win her last grand slam title in 2017.
But Kontaveit, who said she was excited to play Williams, faced a player who showed no signs of wanting to hasten her retirement.
“I think she played very well,” said the Estonian during the post-match press conference. “I mean, I thought I didn’t play a bad match at all.”
After the players split the first two sets, Williams stepped up her game for the decider, Kontaveit said.
“She really turned it on from there,” she said. “There are some points here and there where I feel like I could have done better on my serve maybe. I mean, she returned better. She played the rallies better. I felt like she did everything a little bit better well in the third set.”
The passionate pro-Williams crowd was also a challenge, Kontveit added.
“I mean, I don’t think they were rooting like against me. They just wanted Serena to win so bad,” the Estonian said. “So, I mean, I don’t think it’s a personal attack on me or anything. I mean it’s fair. I mean she deserves this, yeah.”
Williams burst onto the scene by winning her first US Open in 1999
One of the greatest tennis players of all time, Williams has won 23 grand slam singles titles and won the US Open six times, most recently in 2014. Now 40, Williams’ career will be filled as her final match — in whichever one. round which turns out to be – is to be played at the site of the first of her grand slam singles victories, the 1999 US Open.
Then just a teenager, Williams burst onto the scene to stun world No. 1 Martina Hingis in the final and lay the first stepping stone on her path to two decades of dominance.
After Kontaveit won her first Tour-level title in 2017, her real breakout year came in 2021 when she won four WTA tournaments to rise through the rankings.
An aggressive player with a diverse game and a powerful forehand, Kontaveit entered the world’s top 10 for the first time in November 2021 and has been a top seed ever since.
She sits at a career-high ranking of No. 2 — the highest ranking in history for an Estonian — and at age 26 was looking to improve on her best showing at a grand slam, a quarterfinal appearance at the 2020 Australian Open.
Kontaveit looked impressive in her opening-round US Open win over Romania’s Jaqueline Cristian, dropping just three games, and said after her win that she was “rooting” for Williams in her first-round match.
CNN’s Steve Almasy contributed to this report.