This whole farewell celebration for Serena Williams is becoming a bit of a farce at the U.S. Open, in the best possible way.
Serena is not saying goodbye to anyone quite yet. She is advancing through the draw in very familiar fashion, by force of forearm and personality. She is even hinting at potential tournament appearances in the future. On Wednesday night, she defeated second-seeded Anett Kontaveit of Estonia, 7-6 (4), 2-6, 6-2, with her accustomed power game that keeps growing sharper.
“It’s no rush here,” Serena told the crowd, after the win. “I’m loving the crowd. There’s a little left in me. We’ll see.”
It isn’t just Serena’s commanding serve and groundstrokes, though. It’s her footwork, which has remarkably returned to form in the course of a few, short weeks.
How did it happen? This woman, this middle-aged mother, can move again. This is becoming something much more than an Old Timers’ Day appearance. This has become an actual tournament run.
She is now in the third round, and the draw is opening up for her in a way not too dissimilar from the way the Open once crowned Pete Sampras, one last time, back in 2002. Her next opponent is Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia, who is ranked a modest 46th in the world. That should be a walk in the park for Serena, compared to the two-and-a-half-hour thriller against Kontaveit.
It took quite a while, but Serena eventually knocked Kontaveit out of Ashe Stadium with her serves, with her returns. It was never a sure thing. She had her chances early, and often. Serena failed to convert on her first five break chances. Kontaveit held serve in a marathon seventh game, which endured for 20 points and nearly 13 minutes. Then when Serena earned the break in the ninth game, she gave it right back with a sloppy series of unforced errors.
This eventually led to a first-set tiebreaker, which naturally favored the greatest women’s server in the history of the game. Serena finished it off with a service winner and an ace out wide, as Ashe Stadium erupted in sheer ecstasy.
It wasn’t over quite yet. Kontaveit turned the tables immediately, breaking Serena at love in the first game of the second set and painting the lines with her groundies. It seemed that perhaps this was the end for Serena, that she would fade into the night, but Kontaveit got tight and was broken in the second game of the third set on a long forehand.
Back and forth it went, and then Serena earned the decisive break in the fourth game. Improbably, she was gaining confidence and power, yet again.
“I’m just Serena, you know,” she said. “After I lost the second set, I thought I got to give my best effort or this could be it. I’m looking at this as a bonus. I don’t have anything to prove, nothing to lose. It’s kind of fun.”
To be truthful, Kontaveit is not exactly a legit No. 2 player in the world, no matter what the seedings alleged. She has never advanced past the quarterfinal round in a major tournament and has been slumping of late. Kontaveit built her ranking with a nice run last fall, and may come tumbling down in the rankings very soon as those points fall off.
Kontaveit, 14 years younger, had never played Serena. She said the pro-Serena atmosphere was difficult to navigate.
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“It was really hard, Kontaveit said. “You can expect something, but when you’re on the court, it’s hard. I knew it was coming. You have to feel it. Something I never experienced again. It was her moment. It is totally about her and I was aware of that. It’s fair.
“She deserves this.”
This was only Serena’s sixth match of the year, yet she certainly did not resemble at all her weak performances in very recent matches.
“The more tournaments I play, I feel like the more I can belong out there,” she said. “That’s a tough feeling to have, to leave knowing the more you do it, the more you can shine.”
Serena’s goodbye may well turn into a far longer goodbye than expected. She has already dropped a hint that she might well be back
“I’ve been pretty vague about it, right?” she said. “I’m going to stay vague, because you never know.”
If Serena gets to the second week of the Open, vague may get even vaguer.
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