Serena Williams has extended her presumptive farewell tour at least two more days.
The 23-time major singles champion overcame early nerves and a misfiring serve to win 6-3, 6-3 over Danka Kovinić in their US Open first-round match at Arthur Ashe Stadium, launching what’s expected to be the final tournament of her glittering 27-year professional career on a winning note.
Williams, who announced her plans to retire earlier this month, entered Monday night’s headline attraction ranked 605th in the world and having won one singles match in 450 days. But the American star came through with her record 107th victory at the tournament she’s won six times before a sellout crowd of more than 23,000 spectators that crackled with the atmosphere of a big-ticket final – with thousands more watching on a giant screen from the fountain plaza outside the stadium.
Williams, who turns 41 next month, faced constant pressure on her serve from the start, making five double-faults in her opening three service games and facing break points in each of them. But she found stride in the later stages of the first set, rattling off 11 straight points capped by a love break for 5-3 before serving out the opener in 55 minutes.
The American’s serve only improved from there and Kovinić, the 27-year-old from Montenegro ranked 80th, was unable to match her level. When her opponent netted a backhand from the baseline on match point after 1hr 40min, Williams raised her arms aloft amid roars of applause.
The road doesn’t get easier from here. Williams advances to face No 2 seed Anett Kontaveit of Estonia in a second-round match on Wednesday. She also entered in the doubles with her elder sister, Venus, with their opening-round match slated for Wednesday or Thursday.
Williams’ career prospects were in a state of limbo during her 12 months away from the tour between first-round losses at last year’s and this year’s Wimbledon. But her compromised form has come under a harsh glare in the three weeks since she announced her “evolution” away from tennis in a first-person essay that ran in Vogue’s September issue: a run that included a 6-2, 6-4 defeat to Olympic gold medalist Belinda Bencic in Toronto, followed by a 6-4, 6-0 drubbing at Emma Raducanu’s hands in Cincinnati.
But Williams rolled back the years before an adoring audience on Monday night, moving about the court better than she has in years and elevating her level on the pressure points, ensuring herself one more match on the same court where she fielded a congratulatory phone call from US president Bill Clinton after beating Venus to the family’s maiden grand slam title in 1999.
The potential final match of Williams’ career all but obscured any other action across the grounds on day one of the season-ending major at Flushing Meadows. After a tribute video narrated by Queen Latifah played inside the stadium, Williams emerged from the tunnel to Kanye West’s Diamonds From Sierra Leone in a scene that resembled a boxer’s ringwalk more than a traditional player entrance. Spike Lee handled the coin toss and dozens of celebrities dotted the crowd including Martina Navratilova and Mike Tyson, who sat next to one another in the courtside president’s box.