Sparkling Serena Williams overcame a sluggish start to amaze the US Open audience
The retiring 23-time major singles winner was given another chance to create one more memorable moment at Flushing Meadows.
Serena Williams was battling tremendously as she frantically tried to drag herself through the opening set of the contest that could have ended her career. She’d gotten caught into an interminable service game at 5-3 and could only battle to stay alive.
She ultimately came up against her fourth break point of the game, the strain increasing with each point. And then, with a single stroke, she transported Arthur Ashe Stadium back in time: ace, ace, unreturned serve. Set. Williams approached her seat, clinched both of her hands, and yelled into the sky.
For the past two and a half decades, the serve, battle, and attitude have all been some of the most important images in tennis. They will most likely never be seen again after these weeks.
If there was any doubt about the gravity of Williams’ impending retirement, the spectacle that greeted her entrance at Arthur Ashe Stadium for her likely last event put it to rest. Martina Navratilova sat close to Mike Tyson. Gladys Knight was in the backdrop as Midnight Train to Georgia played. Olympia, Williams’ daughter, arrived from the stands with beads in her locks, completing the circle.
Williams’ arrival was accompanied by a film narrated by Queen Latifah when Danka Kovini made her way onto Arthur Ashe Stadium to relative golf claps. She wore a diamond-encrusted gown that gleamed from head to toe, from her hair to the bedazzled cloak that followed her onto the court. Kanye West’s Diamonds from Sierra Leone and a tremendous, continuous shout from the audience accompanied her entrance. As they warmed up, the screens encircling Arthur Ashe Stadium proclaimed “best of all time,” and the announcer went through Williams’ accomplishments in minute detail.
Williams has competed in the world’s biggest matches, willed herself back from the edge of defeat, and held all four grand slams at the same time. Her mental might was unrivalled at the pinnacle of her abilities, when supremacy was her middle name. But she’s never felt anything like this before, playing with the awareness that this is the end.
She performed admirably under such duress, significantly outperforming her previous appearances. Her nervousness were evident from the start, as she double faulted twice in her first game. She couldn’t settle even when she instantly led by a break.
Every shout from the audience seemed to be an unpleasant reminder of how important this moment was, and as her forehand spilled unforced mistakes, she appeared flustered.
Williams, on the other hand, refused to end her career with a first-round defeat. She has struggled in recent months, winning only one of her three previous singles matches and losing 6-4, 6-0 to Emma Raducanu two weeks ago in Cincinnati. “I was quite emotional in Toronto and Cincinnati,” she said afterwards. “It was quite challenging. I’m not saying it’s easy right now. It’s still incredibly challenging since I adore being out there.”
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Her eagerness to cap up her career on a high note was evident. It was audible in her squeaky on-court footfall during every point, the drop shots she chased down at full sprint, and the groans that punctuated every key moment. Rennae Stubbs, her new consultant for one event only, used the new coaching regulations to yell out loud encouraging affirmations from her player box.
Despite the repeated cries of the audience, Kovini remained composed and present, annoying Williams with her consistency, length, and thunderous first serve. After a shaky start, Williams gradually rediscovered her serve and the free points it freed.
She came back from a break down to win the first set, and then, after labouring with the forehand and committing several errors, she began to unload with more ease. By the conclusion of the game, she was imposing herself from behind the baseline, like she usually should.
Not long ago, every Williams triumph was taken for granted. Things change so swiftly. Williams’ reaction to her victory was markedly different from her usual demeanour. “For me, everything is a plus,” she explained. The emotion was reciprocal among the audience members.
Almost every spectator in Arthur Ashe stood up and watched the whole last point on their feet, craning their necks to catch one last glimpse of Williams in full swing.
Williams has done far too much in her career to doubt herself as she prepares to play Anett Kontaveit, the world No. 2 who is now off of form. She’ll go into their second round match motivated to create at least one more memorable moment. Even now, at 40 years old, and despite her recent difficulties, it is difficult to doubt her ability to do so.
Following her triumph, Williams remained on court for the celebration, which included speeches from Gayle and Billie Jean King and a video presented by Oprah. Olympia, Williams’ husband, Alexis Ohanian, and her sister, Isha, sat courtside. Williams addressed the crowd, and in the middle of her remarks, she clearly stated why this is so significant. “All I want is for people to be inspired,” Williams remarked. “My hometown is Compton, California.” And I succeeded.”