Serena Williams of yore feasts on wild second night at US Open | Serena Williams

Jthroughout an intense and breath-taking first set in what could have been the last singles match of his career, Serena Williams watched the world’s No. 2 player, Anett Kontaveit, and responded to her challenge with an impeccable performance. In the second set, however, she was barely holding on. As she saved a break point at 1-3 with a sweet curling ace, she threw her hands up in the sky, furious that she couldn’t find that shot every time she served.

If this were another 40-year-old woman in tennis history, with the rust of a year-long layoff and nerves from her last event, such shortcomings would be expected. But it’s Serena Williams. Not only did she hold herself to stratospheric standards, but she somehow fully met them on the wild second night of her residency at Arthur Ashe Stadium. By defeating Kontaveit, she delayed her singles retirement for another round producing at least one legendary final moment in a career filled with them.

After the pageantry of his first-round victory, with his on-court ceremony and a speech from Billie Jean King, the second round was different. The crowd was slightly quieter, not just there to say goodbye, while Williams was laser focused. She was immediately locked in the high-intensity first set, filled with quality shots from both but dominated by Williams’ serve – she is still, at 40, the best waitress in the world. Under suffocating pressure, she sealed the tiebreaker as she has done so many times over the years – an unreturned serve followed by an ace.

To his credit, Kontaveit played a flawless second set, knocking out the winners on both wings and kissing lines, but Williams simply responded by raising his level even further and handling the match extremely well in the end. In recent games, she had taken full control from the baseline and obliterated Kontaveit’s serve until the end.

It’s a feat all the more remarkable given its limitations. Her first serve was mesmerizing, but only averaged 99mph in the first set – she didn’t serve much under pressure last year, so she was extremely cautious at the start, favoring accuracy and percentage to the power. Her movement, historically one of her greatest assets, is significantly diminished, but she still found a way to dig in a 19-count rally deep in the third set when she needed it most. Despite her lack of fitness, she was a rock in the decisive moments.

In her two hours and 27 minutes on the court, she played every hit at least once more: the aces and vicious return winners she saved for big runs, the roars and the anguish, her heart resting on her diamond-encrusted sleeves. Midway through the third set, Williams became frustrated with the electronic call and informed the referee, Alison Hughes. She then returned to the baseline and channeled her anger into winning at tennis.

Serena Williams raises her racquet and arm to the crowd as she stands on the court after her win
Serena Williams celebrates her win. Photograph: Jason Szenes/EPA

It was especially amazing considering how far she’s come since returning. Williams lost in the first round of Wimbledon, was pushed aside with ease by Belinda Bencic in Toronto and then dismantled 6-4, 6-0 by Emma Raducanu in Cincinnati. She described the last weeks of her career as extremely difficult to manage.

Williams arrived in New York with little confidence, but with one last chance to make an impression in the home stretch of her career, and no chance for redemption. The pressure could have been suffocating but, as she has done so many times in her career, she rose to the occasion. Her success comes from seeing her final tournament as a bonus rather than the burden it might have been. “I’ve had a big red X on my back since winning the US Open in 1999,” she said. “He’s been there all my career, because I won my first Grand Slam at the start of my career. But here it’s different. I feel like I’ve already won.”

She finished on a high, ripping Kontaveit’s serve in the final game and earning her victory with a backhand winner. As former player Mary Joe Fernandez dictated the on-court interview, her very presence was a reminder of Williams’ absurd longevity. Fernandez is 51 and retired for 22 years, yet she and Williams were rivals in 1999. She asked Williams if she was surprised by his level on the pitch, which prompted a laugh and a very pointed look . “I’m just Serena,” she said.

On Thursday night, Williams will return to the same place, same time alongside her sister, Venus, as they compete in doubles together for the last time, a spectacle that may well be even more emotional and pivotal than the singles. She will next face Australian Ajla Tomljanovic on Friday. It could be the night she finally says goodbye, or the next leg of a legendary final race. Either way, on Wednesday night, she gave the world at least one last show of Serena Williams’ unforgettable show in full swing.

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