Serena Williams is saluting the moment, but she’s also not ready to take center stage at the US Open just yet

How do you push that emotion aside, how do you quell the desire to play out the crowd’s thunderous response as you step onto the pitch to reward their belief? How can you put all that aside and focus on the pitch? If you’re Williams, you just do it. Because you always have.

“At this point, honestly, everything is a bonus for me,” she said. “I just think about this moment and I think it’s good for me to live in the moment.”

Williams reacts during her first-round win over Danka Kovinic on Monday night.MICHELLE V.AGINS/NYT

Paying homage to the boxing cape she wore and the dramatic music celebrating her performance on the court, Williams made it clear she was ready to fight.

And that she wasn’t ready to go yet.

Despite a shaky start that clearly appeared to be racked by some nerves, Williams found her step and eventually clinched a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Danka Kovinic, the 27-year-old from Montenegro who had the unfortunate task of to face Williams for the first time in her career on a night when the whole world was cheering for the soon-to-be-retired GOAT.

And there was no mistaking where the crowd’s allegiance lay, as the silence that greeted Kovinic’s successful recordings was broken only by the casual declarations of love to Williams.

From the moment Williams wrote her essay for Vogue magazine three weeks ago, the article in which she refused to use the word “retirement” but essentially announced a retirement nonetheless, this US Open had a new one , sharpened focus. Back in the place where she won the first of her 23 Grand Slam singles titles in 1999, to record a first-round win for the first time in her 40s, having already done so in her 30s, 20s and teens (she’s never lost in the first round at Flushing Meadows), back in the spotlight as she starred in the opening game of the first night session at the raucous Arthur Ashe Stadium, Williams is back where she belongs.

In the middle of the stage.

Monday’s crowd at the US Open left no doubt who they were cheering for.Jamie Squire/Getty

You could feel it around the grounds as fans buzzed with anticipation and climbed the stairs in their homemade t-shirts, one with “Serena Superfan” printed over here on the back, another with a collage of trophies with the words ” Thanks for the memories” over there. There may have been 63 other games scheduled at the sprawling tennis complex, but there was just one that drew the sold-out crowd to a repeated standing ovation, just one that drew stars from a former president (Bill Clinton) to the seats and a TV icon ( Oprah Winfrey) onscreen to narrate a post-game tribute video, just one that evoked the kind of emotions befitting one of the greatest careers in all sports, in any sport.

Just a Serena Williams.

And there she was, in all her fighting glory, overcoming the shaky start that saw her recoup three break points in her very first game, saw her forge a 2-0 lead only to fall behind 3-2, saw her capitalize on an advantage as Kovinic faltered with consecutive double faults to get back up to 3-3 and saw her win the last three games to clinch the opener. She only got stronger from there, eventually taking the last eight points of the game and winning the last two games with service to end the game.

The crowd erupted, Williams danced a little in the square, and with that the possibility of this fairy tale lives on. While it might take a hefty dose of magic dust, even if it only gets harder from here – Williams also plays doubles with her sister Venus on Wednesday – sometimes the opportunity is enough. With a win Monday night, Serena earned another night to, in the words of the great Vin Scully, “put that sun back in the sky for another day of summer.”

Williams celebrates defeating Danka Kovinic on Monday.Sarah Bull/Getty

No one fought that game harder than Williams, changing it so much from within but also in the world around her, a fiercely independent woman of color who stood by her beliefs and held strong in her confidence even when it alienated others . even if it pushed the boundaries of decency, even if it cost her points on the pitch or popularity off it. From the words of young stars like Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff, players who insisted they would never have picked up a racquet without the living example of Serena and Venus, there is no doubt what Williams has meant to the game.

All of this makes saying goodbye so difficult.

“It was such a tough decision because I think when you’re passionate about something and you love something so much, it’s hard to walk away from it,” she said. “I think sometimes it’s harder to walk away than not. But I was just like, ‘Okay, I think now is the right time. I have a family. There are other chapters in life.’”

But first there’s another night on the pitch.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.

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