Serena Williams at the US Open is the greatest show on the planet

The hottest ticket in New York right now is to watch Serena Williams avoid retirement


And on it goes. There are Tony Award winners on Broadway and Harry Styles is playing at Madison Square Gardens, but the hottest ticket in New York right now is to watch a 40-year-old woman trying not to retire from tennis.

Scratch that. There is no better show on the planet than the current one starring Serena Williams at the Arthur Ashe Stadium. 

Emotion, drama, pyrotechnics, a supporting cast of household names this is an unmissable farewell, made all the more spectacular by the fact it could end any minute. It’s a high-wire act, with no net. Any show could be the last. On any given night, the greatest tennis player of all time could bring down the curtain on her singles’ career forever. 

She insists she is not retiring, but evolving away from tennis – but it is what she might evolve into before she goes that keeps the audience on the edge of its seats. A 24-time Grand Slam winner? Who knows? After last night nobody is prepared to say with certainty where this journey ends.

The hottest ticket in New York right now is to watch Serena Williams avoid retirement

The hottest ticket in New York right now is to watch Serena Williams avoid retirement 

The tennis all-time great could bring down the curtain on her singles’ career at any time

The tennis all-time great could bring down the curtain on her singles’ career at any time

The American icon beat Anett Kontaveit to set up a third-round clash against Alja Tomljanovic

The American icon beat Anett Kontaveit to set up a third-round clash against Alja Tomljanovic

Golfing great Tiger Woods (right) was among those who came to pay homage on Wednesday

Golfing great Tiger Woods (right) was among those who came to pay homage on Wednesday

It ends, we know that, because Williams has said this is her farewell tournament and shows no sign of reversing that intent. 

But with second seed Anett Kontaveit outplayed and dispatched across three sets and 147 extraordinary minutes, nobody is convinced they are watching a cameo. Least of all the rest of the field. 

On Monday they saw Williams overcome a weaker opponent and, possibly, shrugged. Many felt the sheer emotional pull of the occasion would see such a great champion through. 

Williams outplayed and dispatched the second seed across three sets and 147 minutes

Williams outplayed and dispatched the second seed across three sets and 147 minutes

But this? Nobody beats the second seed because a bunch of strangers cheer and want it to happen. 

When Kontaveit broke Williams in three consecutive service games to take the second set 6-2, it seemed order had been restored. No matter what she is and what she has been, a player of Williams’ advancing years who has played five matches in 14 months to here can only get so far on the love of the common people.

That is what made her third set so exceptional. She looked the prospect of that evolution square in the eye and decided: not tonight. 

She broke, and broke again, raced to a 4-1 lead and closed out the match, 6-2 with an unstoppable return that sailed back across the net with such certainty the entire arena was on its feet before it landed. ‘This is her moment,’ Kontaveit mused later. ‘This is totally about her, and I’m very aware of that.’

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The Estonian later mused that she was well aware the night was all about Williams

The Estonian later mused that she was well aware the night was all about Williams 

She was referring to the Queen Latifah-narrated montage that welcomes Williams onto court before each match. Her opponent enters first and then sits there like a spare part as Williams’ achievements and importance are detailed by one of the most famous voices in American broadcasting. 

Then, enter the Queen. All jet black and jewels, the obvious main attraction. By now, the crowd are stoked for a prize fight more than a tennis match. If not exactly a bear pit, it is certainly not what the competitors of the WTA circuit are used to. 

Later, an observer who plainly sees the glass as half full asked Kontaveit if she had noticed that when she won two good points back to back, the crowd gave her a cheer, so they were very balanced in their support. Kontaveit said, no, she hadn’t really noticed that at all. She was more in agreement with another questioner who defined the mood as brutal.

And do you know who else is brutal? The GOAT, not restrained. On the court, post-match, Williams was reminded she had just removed the second seed and asked what she thought about that. 

Her reaction was to laugh and fix the camera with the look that Bugs Bunny used to give, when he’d pulled off some stunt of colossal mischief. ‘I know,’ it seemed to say. ‘Ain’t I a stinker?’ No, seriously, how do you do it? Suddenly, Serena’s look turned coy. ‘Well, I was a pretty good player…’

Williams entered court to video montage in black and crystals - clearly the main attraction

Williams entered court to video montage in black and crystals – clearly the main attraction

Williams fixed the camera with a mischievous when asked about knocking out the No. 2 seed

Williams fixed the camera with a mischievous when asked about knocking out the No. 2 seed 

In the circumstances, that past tense seemed over-modest. There is nothing about Williams in this tournament that seems historic. 

Kontaveit didn’t say she would win it, but she didn’t say she couldn’t either. Williams talks about this being the freest she has played since 1998, and that should worry all who stand in her way.

This really is the GOAT untethered. Williams won her first Grand Slam, the US Open, in 1999, since then she has had a target on her back. A big, red, cross, she called it. Now, that has gone. She’s had her career. She’s done. This is fun, this feels like freedom, like it did in 1998 before she was the one to beat. This is Serena on bonus time. 

‘Nothing to lose, nothing to prove,’ she trilled. ‘I feel like I’ve already won, just being out there. I look back – it’s pretty awesome what I’ve done. Now I can just be Serena.’

Ajla Tomljanovic is her next opponent, and she previously expressed a wish to play Williams before she retired. 

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No doubt a lot of players did when they thought they would be up against some Hall of Fame exhibit who concedes sets 6-0 to Emma Raducanu in her twilight years.

Her next opponent Ajla Tomljanovic previously expressed a wish to play with the great

Her next opponent Ajla Tomljanovic previously expressed a wish to play with the great 

Maybe Tomljanovic feels differently now the old Serena has popped her head through the curtain. ‘I’m just pleased I’ve showed up, because the last few times I didn’t,’ she said. 

And that’s true. It perhaps hastened Williams retirement that her most recent outings have been poor. She said she was happy with her practice sessions but it wasn’t converting into match performances. And now it is.

What a sight that remains. The sheer attack of those hits from the baseline, yet the grace concealed in all that power. And the determination. She took a toilet break before the third set and returned re-energised. 

She denied splashing water on her face, like Novak Djokovic, or giving a pep talk to the women in the mirror. ‘I just got, er, lighter,’ she said, confirmation of what Andy Murray revealed this week was an earthy sense of humor. 

Yet she has that within her, that gear change, that shake of the reins. Sitting as a guest in her box was Tiger Woods, another astonishing competitor and outlier, who she says helped her make the decision to compete again.

‘It wasn’t coming together,’ Williams admitted. ‘I thought: “This isn’t me”. I had so many questions, I didn’t know what I was going to do. He’s one of the main reasons I’m still playing.’ 

At the end, Woods stood up to salute his friend, both arms raised in the air, as if holding bar bells. You could see his muscles still bulging. 

Williams gave her trademark ballerina twirl, one arm raised for the crowd; but when she stopped revolving, you could see the other arm, by her side, with its clenched fist. This is one hell of a show.



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