AAs Serena Williams desperately tried to drag herself through the first set of the match that could have marked the end, she was struggling very hard. She had been sucked into an endless service game at 5-3 and she could only fight to hang on. She eventually faced her fourth break point of the game, the pressure building with each one. And then, just like that, she took Arthur Ashe Stadium back in time: ace, ace, unreturned serve. Establish. Williams walked over to her seat, clenched both fists and roared at the sky.
Serving, fighting and attitude have been fundamental aspects of tennis for two and a half decades. After these weeks, it is likely that they will never see each other again.
If there was any doubt about the significance of Williams’ impending departure, the spectacle that greeted her at Arthur Ashe Stadium for her probable tournament finale made it clear. Mike Tyson sat next to Martina Navratilova. Gladys Knight appeared on Midnight Train to Georgia playing background. In Williams’s box, her daughter, Olympia, emerged from the stands with beads in her braids, a full-circle moment.
After Danka Kovinić made his way to Arthur Ashe Stadium to golfing applause, Williams’ entrance was preceded by a video narrated by Queen Latifah. She walked in wearing an outfit that sparkled head to toe in diamonds, from her hair to the dazzling cape that followed her onto the court. Both Kanye West’s Diamonds from Sierra Leone and a prolonged deafening roar from the crowd soundtracked her arrival. As they warmed up, the screens around Arthur Ashe Stadium read “greatest of all time” and the announcer listed Williams’ accomplishments in minute detail.
Williams has played in the biggest matches in the world, working her way from the brink and winning all four Grand Slams at once. At the height of his powers, when domination was his middle name, his mental strength was incomparable. But she has never experienced anything like this, playing with the knowledge that this is the end.
Under such pressure, he did well and performed much better than in his other recent outings. His nerves were naturally there from the start and he double faulted twice in his first game. Even after she immediately led for a break, she couldn’t settle. Every roar from the crowd initially seemed like an unwelcome reminder of the importance of this moment, and when her forehand leaked unforced errors, she initially seemed overwhelmed.
But Williams refused to end her run with a first-round loss. She has struggled a lot in recent months, winning just once in her previous three singles events and losing 6-4, 6-0 to Emma Raducanu two weeks ago in Cincinnati. “She was really excited in Toronto and Cincinnati,” she said after her. “It was very difficult. I’m not saying it’s not difficult now. It’s still extremely difficult because I love being out there.”
His desperation to end his career on a positive note was palpable. He was audible in the small steps of him screeching down the court during each point, the drop shots he chased at full speed and the growls that punctuated every important moment. From her player’s box, Rennae Stubbs, her new single-tournament advisor, took advantage of the new training rules to shout out positive affirmations.
Amidst the constant shouting from the crowd, Kovinić was composed and present, irritating Williams with her consistency, length and booming first serve. But after his lukewarm start, Williams slowly found his serve and the free points he unlocked. He recovered from a break to win the first set and then, after struggling poorly with the forehand, errors flowing freely, he began to unload more freely. At the end of the match, she was playing like she always should, imposing from behind the baseline.
There was a time, not long ago, when every Williams victory was simply expected. How quickly things change. As Williams processed his win, he struck a completely different note than his usual perspective. “Everything is a bonus to me,” he said. On the part of the public, the feeling was mutual. When it came to match point, nearly every Arthur Ashe fan stood up and watched the entire final point on their feet, craning their necks for one last look at Williams in action.
After a career of shattering expectations, Williams has accomplished too much for her not to believe in herself when she takes on Anett Kontaveit, the out-of-shape World No.2. She will head into her second-round match determined to design at least one last signature. moment. Even now, at 40, with her recent struggles, it’s hard to doubt her ability to do so.
After the victory, Williams stayed on the court for the ceremony where Gayle King and Billie Jean King spoke and a video narrated by Oprah was played. Olympia, Williams’ husband, Alexis Ohanian, and her sister, Isha, were courtside. Williams addressed the audience and, in the midst of her comments, she succinctly underlined why this is so significant. “I just want people to be inspired,” Williams said. “I’m from Compton, California. And i did it”.