Serena Williams is unlikely in the third round of the US Open after a 7-6(4), 2-6, 6-2 victory over second seed Anett Kontaveit on Wednesday night, extending what she strongly hinted will be the final event of his storied career for at least two more days.
The 23-time major singles champion, who entered the tournament ranked 605th with just one match win in 450 days, won a tense opener in a tiebreaker before world No. 2 Estonia’s Kontaveit , only breaks immediately to open the second then two more times. force a decision maker.
Amid breathless pump and an exuberant sold-out crowd in the Williams corner, Kontaveit kept her cool time and time again, fending off the first five break points she faced and seven nines in the first two sets. But after an exchange of serve breaks early in the third, Williams broke again and held on to the finish line, conjuring up another indelible moment on the main court of the tournament she won six times.
Once Williams smashed a backhand winner past her opponent at match point after 2h 27min, she calmly lifted a first towards her box of players amid the roars of more than 23,000 spectators who filled Arthur Stadium Ashe.
“There’s no rush here,” said Williams, who has won 23 of his last 25 games against top-two ranked opponents, including eight in a row. “I love this crowd. There is still a little in me. We will see. I’m a pretty good player, that’s what I do best. I like challenges and I take up the challenge.
The American star will advance to a third-round encounter on Friday against Ajla Tomljanović, an unseeded Australian ranked 46th, in a suddenly wide-open section of the women’s draw. Other seeds to drop on Friday included No. 14 Leylah Annie Fernandez and No. 23 Barbora Krejčíková, whose departures ensure Williams won’t be able to face another seed until at least the quarter-finals.
Williams, who turns 41 next month and has played sparingly since Wimbledon last year due to a lingering hamstring injury, revealed his intention to retire earlier this month in a first-person essay published in the September issue of Vogue. Her stunted form was on full display in the US Open preseason tournaments that followed the announcement – a 6-2, 6-4 loss to Olympic gold medalist Belinda Bencic in Toronto, followed by a stunner 6-4, 6-0 against Emma. Raducanu in Cincinnati – which left many observers pessimistic about his chances at Flushing Meadows.
But as she has done countless times during a scenic 27-year professional career, Williams defied expectations by raising her level for her presumed farewell tournament. Unlike his nervous start in Monday’s first-round win over Danka Kovinic, Williams’ serve was dialed in early on Wednesday night, hitting 119mph and hitting his targets at will. She hooked up with big hitter Kontaveit in brawny base volleys and moved down the court with a fluidity long thought to be.
The fairy tale end to a record 24th major to tie Margaret Court’s all-time mark remains a long way off, but Wednesday’s match shows the once gaping gap between Williams’ form and titanic self-confidence could shrink at the right time.
“I haven’t played a lot of games, but I’ve practiced really well,” Williams said. “The last two games, it came together. After losing the second set, I said to myself: “I have to do my best because this could be it”.
“I just consider it a bonus. I have nothing to lose. I’ve had an X on my back since 1999. I really like getting out and enjoying it.