Serena Williams is not ready to say goodbye just yet. In her first match at what is expected to be the last U.S. Open — and last tournament — of her remarkable playing career, Williams overcame a shaky start to overwhelm Danka Kovinic 6-3, 6-3 on Monday night in a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium with an atmosphere more akin to a festival than a farewell.
At about 6:15 p.m., Williams made the short walk to the practice courts beside Arthur Ashe Stadium for a half-hour hitting session to warm up. Folks packing the bleachers above the practice area greeted her with shrieks of “Serenaaaaa!” on her way in, and again yelled on her way out, receiving a wave of her racket as acknowledgment before Williams strode, lips pursed, back into the stadium.
Early, Williams was not at her best. There were double-faults. Other missed strokes, missed opportunities. She went up 2-0, but then quickly trailed 3-2. Then, suddenly, Williams, less than a month from turning 41, looked a lot more like someone with six championships at Flushing Meadows and 23 Grand Slam titles in all — numbers never exceeded by anyone in the professional era of tennis, which began in 1968.
She rolled through the end of that opening set, capping it with a service winner she reacted to with clenched fists and her trademark cry of “Come on!” The more than 23,000 in attendance rose for a raucous standing ovation — and did so again when the 1-hour, 40-minute contest was over, celebrating as if another trophy had been earned.
Williams still didn’t definitively say she was retiring during a ceremony after her victory. But she made it clear she is ready for different things, saying “there’s other chapters in life.”
The ceremony, which included her husband and daughter coming onto the court as well as Billie Jean King, included a tribute narrated by Oprah Winfrey titled “Dear Serena.” It ended by saying: “Just know whatever you do next, we’ll be watching. With love, all of us.”
Williams will continue to play now, facing No. 2 seed Anett Kontveit of Estonia on Wednesday.