Serena Williams isn’t going quietly into the next phase of what she calls her evolution away from tennis. She’s not going at all, just yet.
Showing flashes of the power and fearsome serve that helped her win 23 Grand Slam singles titles in a career whose influence has carried well beyond the tennis court, Williams again delayed her departure from singles competition and turned the clock back to the time she dominated women’s tennis. Her energy dipped after she won a dramatic first-set tiebreak against world No. 2 Anett Kontaveit of Estonia on Wednesday at the U.S. Open, but she rebounded to wrap up a 7-6 (4), 2-6, 6-2 second-round victory, triggering roars from fans who had breathed every breath with her and knew they were witnessing a powerful occasion at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“It’s no rush here. I’m loving the crowd. Oh my goodness, it’s really fantastic,” Williams said during an on-court interview following her win.
Williams, who will be 41 next month, reached the third round of a tournament she has won six times. A seventh title, which seemed so improbable when she came here unseeded and with little match experience because injuries had kept her off the court for nearly a year, suddenly doesn’t seem impossible anymore.
Playing in front of a celebrity-filled crowd that included Tiger Woods, Spike Lee, Gladys Knight and Zendaya, Williams was buoyed by fans who ignored frequent cautions against making noise between points to shout their support. She moved more smoothly and seemed more comfortable with her timing in the early going than she was in her first-round victory over Danka Kovinic on Monday, and she clinched the first-set tiebreak with an ace.
“There’s still a little left in me. We’ll see,” Williams said.
But Williams began to display frustration during the second set, when Kontaveit found success on her backhand and fired some winners. She rode out the dip and rose again, regaining her poise and control of her serve in the third set. She helped herself by gaining two early service breaks that gave her a cushion against her 26-year-old opponent. Kontaveit is enormously talented but woefully inconsistent, and Williams capitalized.
When asked how she responded to Kontaveit’s strong second match, Williams responded: “Well, I’m a good player. That’s what I do best. I love a challenge.”
Williams and her older sister Venus — who lost in the first round here and was in the stands Wednesday — on Thursday will compete in the first opening-round doubles match to be played at night at Arthur Ashe Stadium. They’ll face Lucie Hradecka and 17-year-old Linda Noskova of Czechia on the featured court at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, allowing the maximum number of fans a chance to see the Williams sisters one more time. Ashe has a seating capacity of 23,771.
Serena Williams’ next singles match will be against Ajla Tomljanović, with the start time Friday to be announced.
Williams’ status among her peers is so great that some adjusted their schedules and routines in order to watch her compete here.
Coco Gauff, who has credited Williams with making the sport more diverse and inclusive, was in the stands at to watch Williams’ match on Monday even though Gauff normally would have been resting up after her own match. Danielle Collins was eating dinner during Williams’ first-round victory over Danka Kovinic and followed the match casually. But Collins, who eliminated two-time U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka on Tuesday, planned to watch Williams in person on Wednesday.
“Hopefully whenever her last match is, I’d love to be able to kind of celebrate that,” Collins said. “I think as everybody knows, I’ve idolized Serena and Venus my whole life, they’ve been people I’ve really looked up to. This is such a big moment in our tennis history. I love how our sport celebrates our champions of the game. Hopefully, yeah, I don’t have to play Serena at some point because I’ll be so torn.”
Frances Tiafoe was in the stadium for Williams’ first-round match and planned to return on Wednesday. “One of those things you can’t miss, honestly. Kind of irrelevant what I’m doing. Not irrelevant, but you know what I’m saying. Very relevant out there,” he said Tuesday after his straight-sets victory over Marcos Giron. “I’m just so happy for her, so happy for her she’s going out in her own way. Hopefully she’s going to have a Cinderella story.”
Tiafoe also praised her friendliness toward him when they played on the U.S. team in the Hopman Cup tournament.
“Seeing someone who is a Mt. Rushmore person like her, seeing the normality in her was crazy. How she treats everybody with such respect, everything like that. Just a true leader,” he said. “Being able to share the court with her, being able to practice with her in the offseason. She’s like, ‘Aren’t you coming over to the house? We have lunch.’ She’s really taken me in. She just wants to see me do well.
“It’s sad. It’s sad to see her go. I love how she’s saying she’s evolving and not retiring.”