She came out Monday on Ashe Stadium with the meanest game face this side of Mark Messier, and the sellout crowd hoped beyond hope that Serena Williams would have the tennis this night to back up that famous glare.
She was wearing a sparkly black jacket on a clammy, Queens summer night that begged her to remove that showcase garment. When she did, after the warmup, the sequins just kept coming. The glitter wasn’t only on her outfit, either. In the stands, Bill Clinton was whispering secrets with Dr. Ruth – you couldn’t make that one up. There were celebrities everywhere, and there was Serena’s family, and there was a generic opponent named Danka Kovinic from Montenegro on the other side of the net.
A few dicey moments followed, before Serena knocked out Kovinic, 6-3, 6-3, in the first round of the U.S. Open. Her serve grew steadier as the evening wore on and her groundstrokes appeared more familiar. Her footwork improved. She came up large on the biggest points, when Kovinic shrank. Serena wasn’t quite ready yet to evolve, as she has put it, into a retired athlete. She is still an active tennis player for at least a couple more days. She is in the second round against second-seeded Anett Kontaveit.
“I didn’t expect any of this,” Serena said, during a ceremony after the match. “I always just got to do the best I can do. I feel so comfortable on this court. The crowd was crazy. They really helped pull me through. I was really pumped.”
This was Serena’s 357th major-tournament victory, a ridiculous number, and the win came with some serious ups and downs early in the match. When Serena won the first point, the crowd went wild. But then she double faulted twice, and missed a forehand swinging from her back foot. It seemed, maybe, that Serena would go out with a whimper and not a bang.
She hammered a couple of aces, though, saved two break points, and the battle was joined. She looked a lot fitter, finer tuned, than she had recently while losing three of her last four matches this season. She actually chased down a net ball from the baseline, finishing that point with an overhead slam for a service break and a 2-0 lead.
The audience roared. Serena was Serena again. It seemed suddenly that anything was possible, like this was five years ago and Margaret Court’s record of 23 major titles was still in trouble. When she won, she danced and twirled and waved to the crowd. Serena didn’t look 40. She looked like a delighted, and delightful teenager all over again.
She double-faulted too often, and there were still groundstrokes that sailed long or wide. But Serena was too powerful and, yes, too steady for Kovinic. She broke through for a decisive time in the fifth game of the second set, when the result already felt inevitable.
Kovinic did not turn into a tournament spoiler. Too often, she chose to bang balls from the baseline with Serena instead of changing pace, throwing in a moonball or dropshot. Like so many other opponents, Kovinic couldn’t handle Serena’s first serve. Perhaps Kovinic was too intimidated by this opponent to attempt a few tricky, unorthodox shots.
Even before the match, the 80th-ranked player had spoken about Serena with considerable reverence.
“It’s a privilege to share the court with Serena,” Kovinic said. “I just really hope that I can show my good game. I was like, ‘OK, that’s Serena and I am Danka.’”
Kovinic was only adequate, the perfect first-round opponent. It will get a lot harder for Serena against Kontaveit. She looks ready. She looks so much better than just a few weeks ago, when she was relying more on reputation than on her legs. The rust is coming off, and that’s a bit of a surprise.
Serena has not been a factor for quite a while. This is how disconnected Serena is these days from the tour, and its newer generations: If she played the highest-seeded opponents in her brackets, throughout this whole tournament, she would be facing all but one of them for the very first time. The only exception would come in a potential semifinal, when Serena would meet Maria Sakkari for only the third time.
The Open staged a fanciful, farewell celebration on Ashe for Serena after this first-round match, though it felt a bit out of place after she won. Serena talked about her decision to retire; how she needed time with her 4-year-old daughter, Olympia, in order to be “a good mom.”
“When you’re passionate about something, it’s hard to walk away,” she said. “I have a family. There are other chapters in life. Serena 2.0 is still going to be intense. I just want people to think how hard I’ve tried. I’ve been down so many times in the public eye and never gave up.”
Billie Jean King came out and thanked Serena for her tennis; for her impact on women, and on women of color.
“Her serve is by far the most beautiful serve in the history of our sport,” King said. “You are fearless, and I love it. And guess what – you’re just beginning.”
It wasn’t exactly the beginning on Monday night at the U.S. Open, but it wasn’t quite the end, either. Two more days, maybe more.