NEW YORK — Serena Williams now can say she has won a U.S. Open match in her teens, her 20s, her 30s and — with her daughter on hand — her 40s.
She also has won a championship at Flushing Meadows in her teens, 20s and 30s. So what about in her 40s?
Well, it might be a tad too much to expect that sort of fit-for-a-script run over the next two weeks in what she’s hinted will be her last tournament, even if her six U.S. Open trophies are tied for the most in the professional era and part of a career count of 23 at Grand Slam tournaments.
But as Williams, who turns 41 next month. heads into the second round on Wednesday night against the No. 2 seed in the women’s bracket, Anett Kontaveit, it sure is fun to think about what could be. And it sure should be fun to watch what happens next.
“I absolutely love being out there,” Williams said following her 6-3, 6-3 victory over 80th-ranked Danka Kovinic on Monday night. “The more tournaments I play, I feel like the more I can belong out there. That’s a tough feeling to have, and to leave knowing the more you do it, the more you can shine.”
That’s somewhat of a scary prospect for Kontaveit and, if Williams wins again, any future opponents in a section of the draw that doesn’t include anyone with serious U.S. Open bona fides other than 2021 runner-up Leylah Fernandez, who could be on the other side of the net in the fourth round.
“I was really rooting for her to win (against Kovinic),” said Kontaveit, a 26-year-old from Estonia who has 13 first-round exits in 29 previous Grand Slam appearances and made it only as far as the quarterfinals once. “I’ve never played against her. I mean, this is the last chance. Better late than never.”
Be careful what you wish for.
Because while Williams is not the player she once was, she got past a patchy start Monday to find her rhythm in the second set. That overpowering serve was there. So, too, were the groundstrokes that can be point-enders. And, perhaps most obvious of all, that indomitable spirit, buoyed by a sellout crowd willing her to win.
“I just remember her always fighting, her always fist-pumping, always being so intense on the court, which is I think great,” said Kontaveit, just the sort of power-reliant player against whom Williams has always tended to fare well. “She’s always fighting. She’s always giving 100 percent.”
Williams, who was 1-3 this season before Monday, was asked what questions her performance answered for her as she looks ahead in the tournament.
“I don’t think I had any questions,” came her reply.
Another win will only increase the attention, and ardor, of tennis fans and turn up the volume on talk about whether this could be another turn-back-the-clock U.S. Open story along the lines of Jimmy Connors, who was 39 when he reached the 1991 semifinals, or Pete Sampras, who was 31 when he beat Andre Agassi for the 2002 championship in what turned out to be his last match.
“Well, we are hoping for that, and maybe it’ll happen. She hasn’t played many matches, but once you get one under your belt, the next day at practice generally feels a little bit better. I’m hoping that was the case for her,” said John Isner, a 2018 Wimbledon semifinalist and a first-round winner Tuesday at age 37. “Her opponent has to go up against her - and all of New York City.”
Regardless of what happens in singles, Williams also has doubles to look forward to, with her sister, Venus; they have won 14 Grand Slam titles as a team. Serena called Venus her “rock,” and an important part of the decision-making process that led to the announcement three weeks ago that Serena was preparing to leave her playing days behind.
“She’s had some time to process it, and she’s doing it the way she wants to,” Venus said after losing her first-round singles match Tuesday. “That’s what matters most, is to do things on her own terms.”
That’s long been the case for the younger Williams, on the court and off.
As for whether she’ll remain connected to the sport?
“I don’t see myself not a part of tennis. I don’t know how I’m going to be a part of tennis as of right now. I just don’t know how,” Williams said. “But I just feel like we’ve come too far together to just not have anything to do with it.”
After Monday’s match, the U.S. Tennis Association held an on-court ceremony to honor Williams, with her husband; mother; sister, Isha; and daughter, Olympia, who turns 5 this week, coming down from their seats in the stands to join her.
It included a video tribute from Oprah Winfrey that closed with her saying: “Just know, whatever you do next, we’ll be watching. With love, all of us.”
What’s next, for now, is an encore performance Wednesday night - back with a racket in hand, back in Ashe, back under the lights, back in prime time.
And whatever Williams decides to do after tennis must wait.
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