Corey Sipkin/AFP via Getty Images
NEW YORK – The first week of the US Open Championships is drawing to a close, indeed the tennis world the Sports WorldShe’s enchanted by Serena Williams like never before in her 20+ year dominance.
Why? Because she turns a moment that should be about her legacy into a moment about her tennis.
She set the stage for this special open by write last month that it would probably be her last. New York responded as only New York could, celebrating them with video tributes from Queen Latifah and Oprah Winfrey. The large screens surrounding Arthur Ashe Stadium projected a steady stream of famous faces who came to pay their respects. And, admit it, famous faces to be seen, right?
The biggest to-do happened on the night of Williams’ first-round match against Danka Kovinic of Montenegro – of course it was respectful to get all the messages of “We love you, you’re the GOAT Serena” on the first night of the tournament. But to be honest, the way Williams had been playing since returning from a year-long injury layoff, chances were she wasn’t around long enough to receive all the love.
But then her beat Kovinic in straight sentences. Two nights later, the tributes were back, albeit toned down, while Williams’ game continued to rev up. she beat number two seeded Anett Kontaveit in three sentences. And suddenly the evolution (Williams preferred word) from heritage to tennis was in full swing. Questions like “Is this really your last tournament?” became “Can you win this tournament?”
After Kontaveit’s win, Williams said she tried to navigate both realities.
“I think I kind of blocked it out most of the time,” she said, “but at the same time I kind of embraced it a bit [because] I also want to enjoy the moment. I think those moments are clearly fleeting, so for me it’s really about having a little hug, but also understanding that I’m here to focus and do my best this time.
Sarah Bull/Getty Images
For those of us who sat in the stadium for both games, it was almost disorienting to watch the video screen of Williams highlights and then see her nearly 41-year-old self play with the same power, nuance and athleticism. And with every rocket hit or thunderclap against Kovinic and Kontaveit, the admiration was unanimous – strangers high-five a Williams winner or an ace, people hug and stand in celebration. And roar. Always yelling.
For an opponent, it was all a bit overwhelming.
“I mean, I expected it,” Kontaveit said after the match, “but it was really tough. You can expect something and I saw that too [Williams’ previous match], but when you’re on the pitch it was tough. I knew it was coming, but yeah, I guess you can’t learn from other people’s mistakes. The feeling it was easy, something I’ve never experienced before.”
Kontaveit left the press conference in tears.
Today, Australian Ajla Tomljanovic plays the role of “Next?” What fans are beginning to say is another and likely final Williams run to stardom. If Tomljanovic goes down like the rest, don’t be surprised by Jimmy Connors’ murmurs. memorable US Open 1991when, at 39 and seemingly “over the hill,” he made a fist-pumping tear and advanced to the semifinals.
Williams says she practiced really well leading up to this Open and now it’s satisfying to translate that into solid play during games. Can she win everything?
“I can’t think that far [ahead],” she said. “I have fun and I enjoy it. Honestly I’ve had so many tough games lately, I don’t know how long, that I feel like just being prepared for everyone I play against is going to be really, really difficult and… getting through those moments .”
Even if one of those moments ends in defeat, Williams already has a win of sorts to her name – in a week she’s turned her tournament run from an affectionate farewell to an impassioned guessing game of how long she’s going to stay.