(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 US 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 US 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 honour 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 US Open marks the final chapter of her storied tennis history.”
While Williams did not exactly declare that the US Open definitively would be her last hurrah, she has made it sound as if it will be.