Every time Serena Williams wobbled, the crowd willed her its strength to steady her.
Every time she double-faulted, fans applauded to console and encourage her. With each point she won from Danka Kovinic of Montenegro on Monday, roars cascaded down from the upper reaches of jam-packed Arthur Ashe Stadium. No one wanted this emotionally charged moment, this U.S. Open first-round match, Williams’ groundbreaking career, to end.
Asked about the crowd, Williams said: “They really helped me pull through. I was really pumped. I was like, ‘I got this.’ ”
Williams, who will be 41 next month and recently said she’s “evolving” away from tennis, gave the crowd what it so fervently wanted. Wearing a black skater-style dress with a glittery top, a matching glittery headband, sparkly shoes and shiny stones woven through her hair, she overcame an erratic serve and clawed out a 6-3, 6-3 victory over her 27-year-old opponent, prolonging her career by at least one match. Her nearly 5-year-old daughter Olympia, wearing an identical outfit, sat courtside to cheer her on.
Six times a winner at Flushing Meadows and 23 times a Grand Slam event singles champion, Williams came here unseeded because she’s early in her return after a year’s absence due to a hamstring injury. Ever the fighter, she fought back after Kovinic took a 3-2 lead in the first set and won the last four games on sheer grit and her impressively good movement. Her serve became more consistent in the second set, and she finished with nine aces and six double faults. She also had 23 winners and 25 unforced errors, to 18 and 25, respectively, for Kovinic.
Her victory earned her the right to stage one more fight, against No. 2 seed Anett Konteveit of Estonia, on Wednesday. That figures to be a tougher match than Williams had against 80th-ranked Kovinic, but Williams’ resilience knows no bounds. She has lost a step, but her heart is bigger than any physical shortcoming.
She came out to the court Monday to the accompaniment of a video montage of her remarkable career, narrated by Queen Latifah. She was proclaimed the queen of Queens — the New York City borough that is home to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center — but she’s also the queen of tennis queens.
Williams and her older sister Venus, who began their spectacular careers on the public courts of Compton with their father Richard as their coach, will team up in doubles this week. That will be a fitting ending for two sisters who often felt it was them against the world — until they conquered the tennis world.
Asked what she wanted people to think, especially girls in Compton:
“I just wanted people to be inspired by my story,” she said. “I’m from Compton, Calif., and I made it.”
During a postmatch ceremony, Billie Jean King praised Williams’ fearlessness and fire to win. “You’ve touched our hearts and minds to be our authentic selves, use our voices, to dream big,” King said. “You’re just beginning.”
Oprah Winfrey, narrating a video, thanked Williams for “never backing down … for changing the face of the game.”