NEW YORK (AP) — Serena Williams is not ready to say goodbye just yet. Nor, clearly, are her fans.
In her first match at what is expected to be the last U.S. Open — and last tournament — of her remarkable playing career, Williams overcame a shaky start to overwhelm Danka Kovinic 6-3, 6-3 on Monday night in a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium with an atmosphere more akin to a festival than a farewell.
Looking ahead to a future without tennis competition, Williams told the crowd: “There’s other chapters in life.”
Early, Williams was not at her best. Maybe it was the significance of the moment. There were double-faults. Other missed strokes, missed opportunities. She went up 2-0, but then quickly trailed 3-2. Then, suddenly, Williams, less than a month from turning 41, looked a lot more like someone with six championships at Flushing Meadows and 23 Grand Slam titles in all — numbers never exceeded by anyone in the professional era of tennis, which began in 1968.
She rolled through the end of that opening set, capping it with a service winner she reacted to with clenched fists and her trademark cry of “Come on!” The more than 23,000 in the stands (thousands of others watched on a video screen outside Ashe) rose for a raucous standing ovation — and did so again when the 1-hour, 40-minute contest was over, celebrating as if another trophy had been earned.
Instead, there is plenty more work to be done. Williams will play in the second round of singles on Wednesday against No. 2 seed Anett Kontveit of Estonia on Wednesday. And there’s also doubles to come, too: Williams and her sister, Venus, are entered together in that competition, with their initial match slated for Wednesday or Thursday.
“Just keep supporting me,” Williams said, “as long as I’m here.”
There can be no doubt, the folks so enthusiastically backing Williams on Monday will come again to the U.S. Open from far and wide for Serena — no last name required, befitting someone as much an icon as superstar athlete — eager to see her play or, if not lucky enough to hold the right ticket, hoping for an autograph, a glance at her practicing or merely the chance to breathe the same Flushing Meadows air as her.
They were there to honor her and show appreciation for what she’s done on the court and off. After watching the victory over Kovinic, spectators held up blue, white or red placards that were distributed at their seats to spell out “We (Heart) Serena.”
After Kovinic was introduced simply by name, making clear to even her what an afterthought she was on this muggy evening, Williams’ entrance was preceded by a tribute video narrated by Queen Latifah, who called the American the “Queen of Queens.” The arena announcer called Williams “the greatest of all time,” and intoned: “This U.S. Open marks the final chapter of her storied tennis history.”
While Williams did not exactly declare that the U.S. Open definitively would be her last hurrah, she has made it sound as if it will be.
So this opening outing became an event with a capital “E.”
Spike Lee participated in the pre-match coin toss. Former President Bill Clinton was in the stands. So were Mike Tyson and Martina Navratilova, sitting next to each other.
When Williams made the short walk to the practice courts beside Ashe Stadium for a half-hour hitting session to warm up before Monday’s match, people packing the bleachers above the practice area greeted her with shrieks of “Serenaaaaa!” on her way in, and again yelled on her way out, receiving a wave of her racket as acknowledgment before Williams strode, lips pursed, back into the stadium.
She means a lot to a lot of people. As a tennis player. As a woman. As an African American. As a mother. As a businesswoman.
“When she started out, female athletes weren’t getting recognized. She’s done so much,” said Quintella Thorn, a 68-year-old from Columbus, Georgia, making her eighth trip to the U.S. Open. “And now, she’s …”
“Evolving,” chimed in Thorn’s friend, Cora Monroe, 72, of Shreveport, Louisiana, which she noted is where Richard Williams — the father of Serena and sister Venus, and the central figure in the Oscar-winning film “King Richard” — is from, too.
That word, “evolving,” is the one Williams said she preferred to the more commonly used “retirement” when she wrote in an essay for Vogue released about three weeks ago that she was ready to concentrate on having a second child and her venture capital firm.
Her daughter, Olympia, who turns 5 on Thursday, wore white beads in her hair while sitting with her father and grandmother in the stands on Monday, a nod to her mom’s hairstyle when she won her first U.S. Open in 1999 at age 17.
“Once Serena announced she would play the U.S. Open, we sold out in a nanosecond for Monday night and Tuesday night. You can see on the secondary market, the get-in price is $230. I saw $5,800 for a courtside seat this evening. Look, this is a historic moment for the Williams family, for Serena and our sport,” said Stacey Allaster, the tournament director of the American Grand Slam event. “It is so difficult to really capture what Serena and Venus have done for the sport of tennis. They have transformed our sport. They’ve made us more inclusive. And they’ve transcended sports.”
Which is why Monday mattered more than the usual Day 1 at a major tournament. And why the daily program did not make mention of any other of the dozens of athletes in action, showing instead a montage of six images of Williams holding her six U.S. Open trophies above the title: “Serena Williams, A Legacy of Greatness.” And why there was a sense of less importance for matches involving wins for other elite players such as past U.S. Open champions Bianca Andreescu, Andy Murray and Daniil Medvedev, or French Open finalist Coco Gauff, an 18-year-old American.
Kriti Kamath, a 9-year-old from Boston, toted an oversized yellow tennis ball in hopes of gathering some signatures — perhaps even after Williams’ planned pre-match hitting session in the evening, before her contest — as she walked outside Ashe with her mother, Neethor Shenoy.
Shenoy has told her daughter, who plays tennis, about Williams’ significance.
“She’s very motivated. She’s very driven. And she’s an inspiration to all women; all colored women, particularly,” Shenoy said. “She’s giving a kids a positive path to follow.”
Mom said she’s been traveling from Boston to New York for the U.S. Open since 2004; this was Kriti’s first day of competition, but they were on site earlier in the week for “Fan Week.” The U.S. Tennis Association said more than 90,000 free online passes were downloaded for that run-up to the main-draw action, an increase of more than 35% from the last pre-pandemic tournament in 2019.
The USTA said it sold more than 16,500 tickets for the tournament on the day Williams revealed her intentions, more than in the previous seven days combined. That included more than 4,600 for Monday night alone, making it a sellout.
Monroe and Thorn said they had tickets for both the daytime and nighttime sessions, which are sold separately, for each of the tournament’s initial three days.
On Monday, both were wearing blue T-shirts: Monroe’s was emblazoned with “Serena” four times in different shades of purple; Thorn’s carried a black-and-white photo of Williams beside the words “Greatest Female Athlete” — with “Female” crossed out.