Bubbly Serena Williams overcomes timid start to delight US Open crowd | Serena Williams

As Serena Williams desperately tried to drag herself into the opening set of the match which could have been the end, she was struggling badly. She had been sucked into an endless service game at 5-3 and she could only fight to hold on. She eventually faced her fourth break point of the match, with the pressure mounting with each point. And then, just like that, she took Arthur Ashe Stadium back in time: ace, ace, unreturned serve. Adjust. Williams walked to her seat, she clenched both fists and she roared into the sky.

Service, combat and attitude have all been fundamental elements of tennis for two and a half decades. After these weeks, they will probably never be seen again.

If there was any doubt about the significance of Williams’ impending departure, the spectacle that greeted his arrival at Arthur Ashe Stadium for his likely final tournament nailed him home. Mike Tyson sat next to Martina Navratilova. Gladys Knight appeared in Midnight Train to Georgia playing in the background. In Williams’ players box, her daughter, Olympia, appeared in the stands with pearls in her braids, a full-circle moment.

After Danka Kovinić walked to Arthur Ashe Stadium for relative golf applause, Williams’ entrance was preceded by a video narrated by Queen Latifah. She stepped into a costume that shimmered from head to toe in diamonds, from her hair to the bedazzled cape that trailed her across the court. Sierra Leone’s Kanye West diamonds and a deafening, prolonged roar from the crowd accompanied his arrival. As they warmed up, the screens around Arthur Ashe Stadium displayed “greatest of all time” and the announcer listed Williams’ accomplishments in great detail.

Williams has played the biggest matches in the world, she has fought her way from the brink and she has held all four Grand Slams at once. At the height of his powers, when dominance was his middle name, his mental strength was second to none. But she has never experienced anything like this, playing with the certainty that this is the end.

Under such pressure, she did well and performed much better than her other recent outings. Her nerves were naturally present from the start and she committed two double faults in her opening match. Even after being immediately dragged into a break, she couldn’t settle. Each roar from the crowd initially seemed like an unwelcome reminder of the importance of this moment, and as her forehand shunned unforced errors, she initially seemed overwhelmed.

But Williams refused to end his career with a first-round loss. She’s struggled a lot in recent months, winning only once in her previous three singles events and suffering a 6-4, 6-0 loss to Emma Raducanu two weeks ago in Cincinnati. “I was really emotional in Toronto and Cincinnati,” she said afterwards. “It was very difficult. I’m not saying it’s not difficult now. It’s still extremely difficult because I love being there.

Gayle King interviews Serena Williams on court after her win.
Gayle King interviews Serena Williams on court after her win. Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA

His desperation to end his career on a high note was palpable. It was audible in her squeaky little steps across the court at every point, the drop shots she chased into a full sprint, and the grunts that punctuated every important moment. From her dressing room, Rennae Stubbs, her new single-tournament consultant, took advantage of the new coaching rules to shout positive affirmations out loud.

Amid constant shouting from the crowd, Kovinić was composed and present, irritating Williams with his consistency, length and booming first serve. But after his lukewarm start, Williams slowly found his serve and the free runs he unlocked. She recovered from a breakdown to win the first set, then after struggling a lot with the forehand, the mistakes flowing freely, she started unloading with increasing freedom. By the end of the game, she was playing like she always should, winning behind the baseline.

There was a time, not too long ago, when every victory for Williams was simply expected. How quickly things change. As Williams processed her victory, she struck a completely different note from her usual view. “Everything is a bonus for me,” she said. From the public, the feeling was mutual. As she reached match point, nearly every Arthur Ashe fan stood and watched the entire endpoint on their feet, craning their necks to get one last look at Williams at full throttle.

After a career of shattering expectations, Williams has achieved too much for her not to believe in herself as she faces out-of-form world No. 2 Anett Kontaveit. She’ll head into their second-round match determined to engineer at least one final signing. moment. Even now, at 40, with his recent fights, it’s hard to doubt his ability to do so.

After the win, Williams remained on the court for the ceremony where Gayle King and Billie Jean King spoke and a video narrated by Oprah was released. Olympia, Williams’ husband, Alexis Ohanian, and her sister, Isha, stood outside the court. Williams spoke to the audience and in the middle of her comments, she succinctly highlighted why this is so significant. “I just want people to be inspired,” Williams said. “I’m from Compton, California. And I did.

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