Tduring a breathless, intense first set during what could have been the last singles match of her career, Serena Williams stared down the number 2 player in the world, Anett Kontaveit, and responded to her challenge with a flawless performance. In the second set, however, she barely held her own. As she saved a break point at 1-3 with a sweet, curling ace, she raised her hands to the sky, annoyed she couldn’t find that shot every time she served.
If this were any other 40-year-old in the history of tennis, with the rust of a year’s layoff and the nerves of her final event, such shortcomings would be expected. But this is Serena Williams. She not only held herself to stratospheric standards, but somehow fully met them on the delirious second night of her Arthur Ashe Stadium residency. In defeating Kontaveit, she postponed her singles retirement for another round producing at least one last legendary moment in a career filled with them.
After the spectacle of her opening round win, with its on-court ceremony and Billie Jean King speech, 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 immediately locked in during the high-intensity first set, one filled with quality shot-making from both but dominated by the Williams serve – she is still, at 40, the best server in the world. Under stifling pressure, she sealed the tie as she has done so many times over the years – an unreturned serve followed by an ace.
To her credit, Kontaveit played a perfect second set, flashing winners from both wings and kiss lines, but Williams simply responded by raising her level further and managing the match supremely well at the end. Before the final games, she took full control of the baseline and eliminated Kontaveit’s serve until the end.
It’s an achievement all the more remarkable considering her limitations. Her first serve was mesmerizing, but only averaged 99mph in the first set – she hasn’t served much under pressure this past year so was extremely cautious at first, prioritizing accuracy and percentage over power. Her movement, historically one of her biggest assets, is notably diminished, yet she still found a way to dig out a 19-stroke rally deep in the third set when she needed it most. Despite her lack of match fitness, she was a rock in the crucial moments.
During her two hours and 27 minutes on court, she played all the hits at least one more time: the aces and vicious return winners she saved for important points, the roars and the angst alike, her heart arranged on her diamond-encrusted sleeves. Midway through the third set, Williams became frustrated with the electronic line call and let the referee, Alison Hughes, know. She then returned to the baseline and channeled her anger into winning tennis.
It was especially astonishing considering how far from such a form she had looked since her return. Williams lost in the first round of Wimbledon, was swept aside with ease by Belinda Bencic in Toronto and then dismantled 6-4, 6-0 by Emma Raducanu in Cincinnati. She described the final weeks of her career as extremely difficult to handle.
Williams arrived in New York low on confidence however with one final chance to make any impression in the final stretch of her career, and no more chances for redemption. The pressure could have been suffocating but, as she has done so many times in her career, she rose to the occasion. Her success stemmed from viewing her final tournament as a bonus rather than the 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 whole 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 flourish, tearing up Kontaveit’s serve in the final game and clinching her victory with a backhand return winner. As 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, yet she and Williams were rivals in 1999. She asked Williams if she was surprised by her level on the court, which prompted laughter and a very pointed look. “I’m just Serena,” she said.
On Thursday night, Williams will return to the same venue, together with her sister, Venus, as they compete together in the doubles for the final time, a show that may be even more emotional and vital than the singles. She will then face Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic on Friday. It could be the night she finally says goodbye, or the next step in one final legendary run. Regardless, on Wednesday night, she gave the world at least one last proof of the unforgettable sight of Serena Williams in full flow.