Serena Williams isn’t going quietly into retirement.
The soon-to-be-41-year-old Queen of Queens put off the end of her career for at least another match when she knocked off Danka Kovinic of Montenegro, 6-3, 6-3, to advance to the second round of the U.S. Open in what is expected to be her final tournament.
It was just her second win in 2022 after taking a year off due to a hamstring injury. Her trademark serve and movement looked much better than they had in any of her previous matches this year, which bodes well going forward.
Next up is No. 2 seed Anett Kontaveit on Wednesday.
Now the question is: Can Serena make a Jimmy Connors-type run in Flushing Meadows? In 1991, Connors, who turned 39 during the tournament, entered as a wildcard and famously reached the semifinals before losing to Jim Courier.
“I just try to do the best I can when I step out on the court I just want to do the best that I can do on that particular day and that’s really all I want to do,” Serena said in her on-court interview with Gayle King.
“The crowd was crazy. It really helped pull me through. I was really pumped, I was like, Yes, I got this.”
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As Serena entered the court wearing a black figure skating-inspired Nike dress, the 23-time Grand Slam champion was introduced as “The Greatest of All Time.” She and Kovinic were greeted on court by filmmaker Spike Lee.
After Serena earlier this month announced her impending retirement in a Vogue story, more than 30,000 U.S. Open tickets were sold. A capacity crowd of 23,800 in Arthur Ashe Stadium — including Serena’s 4 1/2 year old daughter Olympia, who wore a sparkling black dress just like her mother, and former President Bill Clinton — was on hand for the event, with courtside seats going for upwards of $5,800. Fifteen television crews covered the match. Beforehand, a video montage played honoring Serena and other past champions. It was reminiscent of “One Shining Moment” played after the NCAA championship game every year.
Even though Serena has barely played in the last year, the draw seemed favorable, Kovinic hadn’t won a match since the French Open.
Serena improved to 21-0 in her first-round matches at the Open and remains alive for an elusive record-tying 24th major title.
“It’s sad that she’s stopping but I hope that however long she’s in the tournament, it’s an amazing celebration of her and what she’s achieved,” three-time major champion Andy Murray, who played mixed doubles with Serena at Wimbledon in 2019, said on ESPN after his first-round win.
“And Venus as well. What they’ve done as sisters is almost more remarkable than their achievements on their own.”
Venus, who is flying under the radar at 42, has not announced her plans but there is speculation she could also retire after the Open. Venus plays her first-round match Tuesday afternoon.
Serena and Venus are playing doubles together beginning Thursday, meaning their final match could come alongside one another.
“We’re laying it all out here [in doubles],” Serena said. “For me at least, I can’t speak for my sister.”
The crowd was behind Serena from the very start.
She double-faulted twice in the first game of the match, but fought back with back-to-back aces before Kovinic netted a forehand on game point as the crowd roared.
In the next game, the crowd rose to its feet as Serena broke for a quick 2-0 lead when she smacked a forehand winner at the net.
When she smacked a 115-mph service winner to take the first set 6-3, the crowd stood to applaud.
When Williams seized a 5-3 lead in the second set, six-time U.S. Open champion Chrissie Evert said on ESPN, “I haven’t seen her play like this in five years.”
Williams has now won a U.S. Open match in her teens, her 20s, 30s and 40s.
“You are fearless,” Billie Jean King told Williams after the match on court. “You hate to lose, and I love it.”
Serena hasn’t definitively said this will be her last tournament, but it sure looks that way.
“It’s been a very hard decision because when you’re passionate about something and you love something so much, it’s hard to walk away,” she said of retirement. “Also, I love it because it keeps you fit so that’s a bonus.”
She has said she wants to grow her family and have more kids.
“I can’t imagine my life without my sisters…,” she told Time Magazine. “When I look at Olympia, I’m really not performing at my peak, by not trying harder to give her that sibling. Coming from a big family, and coming from five, there’s nothing better.”
For now, Serena remains alive for at least one more match.
“But everything she’s done in her career, I don’t know that this will be her final match or not,” said Coco Gauff, who was inspired to play by Serena and won her first-round match Monday, said before Serena’s match. “I hope not. I hope that she wins and that she keeps going. In general, either way, everything that she’s done, I’m sure it’s going to be an emotional night for everyone, for everything she’s done on and off the court, I think you can’t put into words.
“I hope that tonight is how she wants to end or evolve away from tennis.”
For now, Serena can dream of a Connors-esque run at the Open.
“Just keep coming out and supporting me for as long as I’m here,” she told the crowd, “and know that I love you so so much.”