Serena Williams isn’t going quietly into the next phase of what she calls her evolution away from tennis. She’s not going at all, just yet.
Displaying flashes of the power and fearsome serve that helped her win 23 Grand Slam singles titles, Williams again delayed her farewell to singles competition. Her energy dipped after she won a tense first-set tiebreak against world No. 2 Anett Kontaveit of Estonia, but she rebounded to hammer out a stirring 7-6 (4), 2-6, 6-2 second-round victory on Wednesday, inspiring roars from fans who took every breath with her and knew they were witnessing a unique and powerful moment.
“It’s no rush here,” Williams said of postponing her transition to a life centered on family and business interests. “I’m loving the crowd. Oh, my goodness, it’s really fantastic.”
Her performance was vintage Serena, controlling points and swinging freely, if sometimes wildly. She had nothing to prove to anyone, no statement to make.
For a few hours she could again be the carefree 17-year-old who made the world take notice when she won her first Slam singles title at Flushing Meadows 23 years ago. She enjoyed the battle and, of course, the result that launched her into the third round on Friday against Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia, a first-time matchup for them.
“I just feel like I have had a big red X on my back since I won the US Open in ’99. It’s been there my entire career, because I won my first Grand Slam early in my career,” Williams said. “But here, it’s different. I feel like I’ve already won, figuratively, mentally. It’s just pretty awesome, the things that I’ve done. I never, like, accept that. I never think about it.
“So tonight, I was just like, ‘Serena, you’ve already won, just play, be Serena. You’re better than this.’”
She elevated her game in the third set, seizing control with two early breaks. Konteveit, bravely bearing the crowd’s displeasure when she denied Williams a point or a game, said Williams returned better, hung in better during rallies, and generally resembled the champion Kontaveit had idolized while growing up.
“She played amazing,” Kontaveit said. “I fought really hard, thought I played a decent match. She was better today.”
Williams, who will be 41 on Sept. 26, has reached the third round of a tournament she has won six times before. A seventh title, which seemed improbable when she came here unseeded and with little match experience because injuries had kept her off the court for nearly a year, doesn’t seem impossible anymore.
It won’t be easy for her in a field filled with younger, match-tested opponents. And she’s expending extra energy playing doubles with her older sister Venus, starting on Thursday. The match was moved to Arthur Ashe Stadium, which has a seating capacity of 23,771, so as many people as possible can see the Williams sisters as they near the end of a road that began on the public courts of Compton with their father, Richard, coaching them.
There are other factors working in favor of her continuing her run. Defending champion Emma Raducanu is gone, as are No. 7 seed Simona Halep and No. 10 Daria Kasatkina. No. 3 Maria Sakkari was upset on Wednesday by Wang Xiyu of China. Leylah Fernandez, the 2021 U.S. Open runnerup and No. 14 seed this year, was dismissed Wednesday night by unseeded Russian Liudmila Samsonova.
So there’s a chance. Williams does well seizing chances.
“I think she played very well today,” Kontaveit said. “I mean, I know there is also a lot of very strong girls there in the draw. But I think if she plays really good tennis, I think she always has a chance to win.”
Williams’ first match here, on Monday against Danka Kovinic, had the electricity of an occasion. She walked out to the court to a video narrated by Queen Latifah and afterward watched a video narrated by Oprah Winfrey that showed a montage of her greatest moments. The videos were played on Wednesday, which seemed to embarrass Williams.
“I think these moments are clearly fleeting,” she said. “For me, it’s really about having a little embrace, but also understanding that I’m here to focus, do the best that I can this time.”
Tomljanovic, her next opponent, acknowledged she’s a Serena Williams fan — until Friday, anyway.
“I think she’s changed the sport, tennis, but also what she’s done worldwide for women in sports is incredible,” said Tomljanovic, 29, who was born in Croatia but represents Australia.
“She’s paved the way for so many, inspired me to go for my dreams. Even, like, her longevity. Like, I’m kind of in the part of my career now where they call you on the older side. She’s made that kind of nonexistent. ‘Old’ is not even a word in her vocabulary. Very grateful to her like that. I don’t think there’s anyone like her, obviously.”
Tomljanovic said Williams has the same aura to her as legends Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. “I always get happy when she says ‘Hi’ to me,” Tomljanovic said, smiling.
But not goodbye. Not yet. Not for a while, please.