This may be the swan song for Serena Williams, but the tune isn’t over yet after the legend advanced in her first-round matchup on Monday night.
In the first round of her final US Open tournament, Williams defeated Danka Kovinić, the 80th-ranked player out of Montenegro, 6-3, 6-3.
From the beginning, it was clear that this wasn’t just going to be any other night. “When I walked out, the reception was really overwhelming,” admitted Williams. “It was loud and I could feel it in my chest. It was a really good feeling. It’s a feeling I’ll never forget, so I really — yeah, that meant a lot to me.”
Once the match began, Williams looked entirely different than she did during her brief one-match appearance at Wimbledon, where she lost to qualifier Harmony Tan 7-5, 1-6, 7-6 (10-7). Williams was moving more fluidly and powerfully, closer to the Serena of old. She played tremendous defensive tennis but also brought the power, notching nine aces, which was the second-most of any woman on the day.
However, nobody should be surprised that Serena Williams brought her A-game under the lights of Arthur Ashe stadium where she has won so many huge matches. She is the ultimate gamer and is certainly not one to go into retirement quietly. In fact, even though Williams announced her pending retirement after the contest she still refuses to even use that word.
“I have never liked the word ‘retirement,’” she wrote in Vogue. “It doesn’t feel like a modern word to me. I’ve been thinking of this 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.”
“I prefer the word ‘evolution’ because I feel like I’m at a stage of my life where I’m not necessarily retiring, I’m just evolving from tennis,” Williams said after the match. “And I do feel different. I think I was really emotional in Toronto and Cincinnati. It was very difficult. I’m not saying it’s not difficult now. 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.”
Williams is the most decorated female tennis player ever and perhaps the greatest female athlete of all time. She’s won 23 Grand Slam titles — 7 at the Australian Open, 3 at the French Open, 7 at Wimbledon, and 6 at the US Open. She came into the tournament boasting an 856–154 record.
She most recently won the Australian Open in 2017, when she beat her sister, Venus Williams, in 2 sets. The sisters will actually play doubles together in this year’s US Open. It will be the first doubles event for the sisters as a team since the 2018 French Open. In their history together, they have won 14 Grand Slam championships, most recently at Wimbledon in 2016.
The sisters playing together for one final time is a major component of this farewell tour for Serena. “I feel like it’s been very important for [Venus] to be a part of this. She’s my rock. I’m super excited to play with her and just do that again. It’s been a long time.”
At 40 years old, Williams has committed to putting down her racket, and dedicating her life to motherhood, as she shares kids with Alexis Ohanian, an entrepreneur and the co-founder of the messaging site Reddit.
But that will have to wait for at least two more nights. Serena Williams will now move on to face Estonian Anett Kontaveit. While Kontaveit is the 2nd-ranked woman in the tournament, she also doesn’t have a win over a top-60 player since April. She’s dealing with a coaching change and had a long battle with COVID earlier in the year, so a Serena Williams upset isn’t out of the question.
But Serena isn’t thinking about that just yet.
“I’m just thinking about just this moment. I think it’s good for me just to live in the moment now.”
She wants to enjoy it, knowing full well that while her body and skill might allow for many more moments like this, there are likely few more to come. “That’s a tough feeling to have, and to leave knowing the more you do it, the more you can shine.”
She’ll have one more chance to shine under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium on Wednesday night against Estonian Anett Kontaveit.