New York: They came from far and wide for Serena — no last name required, befitting someone as much an icon as superstar athlete – to to see her practice and play and, it turned out, win a match at the US Open. Serena Williams is not ready to say goodbye just yet. Nor, clearly, are her fans. And she heard them, loud and clear.
In her first match at what is expected to be the last US Open – and her last tournament – of her remarkable playing career, even if Serena Williams insists that she won’t quite say so, the American overcame a shaky start to overpower Danka Kovinic 6-3, 6-3 amid an atmosphere more akin to a festival than a farewell.
What memory will stick with her the most from the evening? “When I walked out, the reception was really overwhelming. It was loud and I could feel it in my chest. It was a really good feeling,” said the owner of six US Open championships and 23 Grand Slam titles overall, numbers unsurpassed by any other player in the sport’s professional era.
“It’s a feeling I’ll never forget. Yeah, that meant a lot to me,” Serena added.
This opening outing against Kovinic, a 27-year-old from Montenegro ranked 80th, became an event with a capital ‘E’. Spike Lee participated in the pre-match coin toss. Former President Bill Clinton was in the stands. So were Mike Tyson and Martina Navratilova, sitting next to each other. And sitting with Dad and Grandma was Serena’s daughter, Olympia, who turns 5 Thursday, wearing white beads in her hair just like Mom did while winning the US Open for the first time at age 17 back in 1999.
Serena is now 40, and told the world three weeks ago via an essay for ‘Vogue’ that she was ready to concentrate on having a second child and her venture capital firm.
Asked after her victory Monday whether this will definitively be her final tournament, Serena replied with a knowing smile: “Yeah, I’ve been pretty vague about it, right?” Then she added: “I’m going to stay vague, because you never know.”
Both players called the decibel level ‘crazy’. Kovinic said she couldn’t hear the ball come off Serena’s racket strings — or even her own.
Early, Serena was not at her best. Maybe it was the significance of the moment. There were double faults. Other missed strokes, missed opportunities. She went up 2-0, but then quickly trailed 3-2. Then, suddenly, Serena, looked a lot like the champion she’s been for decades and less like the player who came into this match with a 1-3 record since returning to action in late June after nearly a year off the tour.
“At this point, honestly, everything is a bonus for me, I feel,” Serena said. “It’s good that I was able to get this 9win) under my belt. … I’m just not even thinking about anything else. I’m just thinking about just this moment. I think it’s good for me just to live in the moment now,” the legendary player added.
Serena 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!” That was met with thunderous cheers and applause – as was the ending of the one -hour, 40-minute contest, as if another trophy had been earned.
Instead, there is plenty more work to be done. Serena will play in the second round of singles Wednesday against No. 2 seed Anett Kontveit of Estonia. And there’s also doubles, too: Serena and her sister, Venus, are entered together in that competition, with their initial match slated for Wednesday or Thursday.
“Just keep supporting me,” Serena told the spectators, “as long as I’m here.”
They surely will. They were there to honour her and show appreciation for what she’s done on the court and off. After watching the victory over Kovinic, spectators held up blue, white or red placards that were distributed at their seats to spell out “We (Heart) Serena.”