Serena Williams is improbably through to the third round of the US Open after a 7-6 (4), 2-6, 6-2 win over the second-seeded Anett Kontaveit on Wednesday night, extending for at least two more days what she has strongly hinted will be the final event of her storied career.
The 23-time major singles champion, who entered the tournament ranked 605th with only one match win in 450 days, won a tense opening set in a tiebreaker before Kontaveit, the world No 2 from Estonia, broke immediately to open the second then twice more to force a decider.
Amid breathless pomp and a rollicking sellout crowd squarely in Williams’s corner, Kontaveit held her nerve time and again, fighting off the first five break points she faced and seven of nine in the first two sets. But following a trade of service breaks early in the third, Williams broke again and held on through the finish line, conjuring yet another indelible moment on the main show court of the tournament she has won six times.
Once Williams crunched a backhand winner past her opponent on match point after 2hr 27min, she calmly raised a clenched fist toward her player box amid the roars of more than 23,000 spectators who filled Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“It’s no rush here,” said Williams, who has won 23 of her past 25 matches against opponents ranked in the top two including eight in a row. “I’m loving this crowd. There’s still a little left in me. We’ll see. I’m a pretty good player, this is what I do best. I love a challenge and I’m rising to the challenge.”
The American star advances to a third-round meeting on Friday against Ajla Tomljanovic, an unseeded Australian ranked 46th, in a suddenly wide open section of the women’s draw. Among the other seeds to fall on Wednesday were No 14 Leylah Annie Fernandez and No 23 Barbora Krejcikova, whose departures ensure that Williams cannot face another seeded opponent until at least the quarter-finals.
She has also entered the doubles with her elder sister, Venus, with their opening-round match slated for Thursday’s night session in what is thought to be a tournament first.
Williams, who turns 41 in September and has played sparingly since last year’s Wimbledon due to a nagging hamstring injury, revealed her plans to retire in a first-person essay published in Vogue’s September issue. Her reduced form was laid bare in the US Open run-up tournaments that followed the announcement – a 6-2, 6-4 loss to Olympic gold medallist Belinda Bencic in Toronto, followed by a 6-4, 6-0 stunner to Emma Raducanu in Cincinnati – which left many observers pessimistic about her chances in Flushing Meadows.
But as she has done countless times in a panoramic 27-year professional career, Williams has defied expectations by raising her level for her presumptive farewell tournament. Unlike her nervy start to Monday’s first-round win over Danka Kovinic, Williams’s serve was dialled in from the start on Wednesday night, clocking as high as 119mph and hitting her targets at will. She hung with the big-hitting Kontaveit in muscular baseline volleys and moved about the court with a fluidity thought long gone.
The fairytale ending of a record-tying 24th major to equal Margaret Court’s all-time mark remains far-off, but Wednesday’s match shows the once-yawning gap between Williams’s form and titanic self-belief may be narrowing at the right time.
“I haven’t played many matches, but I’ve been practicing really well,” Williams said. “The last couple of matches it’s come together. After I lost the second set I thought: ‘I’ve got to give my best effort because this could be it.’
“I’m just looking at it as a bonus. I don’t have anything to lose. I’ve had an X on my back since 1999. I really enjoy just coming out and enjoying it.”