“After I lost the second set, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I have to do my best because this could be it,'” Williams told ESPN in an on-court interview after the match.
Williams looked better than previous games this year, where she was still trying to shake off the rust from a long layoff.
In world number 2 Kontaveit, however, Williams faced a much tougher test and was undoubtedly the underdog on paper, but certainly not with the full house at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
A noisy but well-behaved crowd cheered her every moment.
She addressed the lengthy layoff during her interview on Wednesday, but said, “I like a challenge.”
Williams will next face Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic in the third round. Tomljanovic, who played alongside Williams on Wednesday, beat Russia’s Evgeniya Rodina 1-6, 6-2, 7-5.
And Williams doesn’t just play singles; she will open the doubles game with her sister Venus Williams on Thursday evening.
“I need more matches,” she told ESPN. “I love taking on the challenge. Yeah, I haven’t played a lot of games, but I’ve been training really well. In my last few games, it just wasn’t happening. I’m like, this is not me.”
Things have changed since she started playing the Open, she said.
“I’ve never liked the word retirement. It doesn’t sound like a modern word to me. I thought of it as a transition, but I want to be sensitive to how I use that word, which means something very specific and important to a community of people,” Williams said in the Vogue article published earlier this month.
“Perhaps the best word to describe what I do is evolution. I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis, into other things that are important to me,” she said.
During his post-match press conference on Monday, Williams was asked if this was indeed his last tournament.
“Yeah, I’ve been pretty vague about that, haven’t I?” She said with a smile. “I’ll keep it vague because you never know.”
The first-round win over Kovinić was the best Serena Williams had seen since returning from injury. She has only managed to win one match since returning to the tour in June and hasn’t been able to come close to the form that helped her win her last Grand Slam title in 2017.
While Williams was still far from that level in Monday’s victory over Kovinić, it will certainly have given him hope that his last dance at the US Open could be extended.
One of the greatest tennis players of all time, Williams has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles and won the US Open six times, most recently in 2014. Now 40, the career of Williams will come full circle with her last match – in any round that happens to be – to be played at the site of the first of her Grand Slam singles victories, the 1999 US Open.
As a teenager, Williams burst onto the scene to stun world No. 1 Martina Hingis in the final and lay the first stepping stone on her path to two decades of dominance.
Kontaveit is a rising star
After Kontaveit won her first Tour-level title in 2017, her real breakthrough year came in 2021 as she won four WTA tournaments to move up the ranks.
An aggressive player with a varied game and a powerful forehand, Kontaveit broke into the world top 10 for the first time in November 2021 and has been a mainstay ever since.
She sits second in the career rankings – the highest ranking in history for an Estonian – and at 26 she will certainly be looking to improve on her best performance at a grand slam, a quarter-final at the Australian 2020. Open.
Kontaveit looked impressive in her US Open first-round victory over Jaqueline Cristian of Romania, losing just three matches, and said after her victory that she was “rooting” for Williams in her first-round match and that she was “really excited” to play against her.
“I never played against her. I mean, this is the last chance,” she told reporters. “Better late than never.
“I’m really excited. I think the atmosphere is going to be amazing. I’m really looking forward to it.”
CNN’s Steve Almasy contributed to this report.