“I’m just Serena,” she said evenly, a quote that will undoubtedly go down as one of the most memorable in the sport.
This ability to find other gear and dig even deeper in the toughest times provided the foundation for Williams’ continued success for over 20 years on the Tour.
Given his form at the US Open – just one win since returning to the tour in June after a year out through injury – it was fair to assume that Williams’ opener against Danka Kovinic would hardly be more than an emotional farewell. tennis for the 23-time Grand Slam champion.
But being “just Serena”, Williams produced by far her best tennis of the season to dispatch Kovinic perfectly and extend her last dance in New York for at least a few more days.
Then came Kontaveit, the world No. 2 and one of the toughest players on the Tour. The Estonian would provide a much tougher test as Kovinic and Williams undoubtedly entered their game as considerable underdogs.
Surely, after two stellar decades at the top, this is where Williams’ career would end? Of course not. She is, after all, “just Serena.”
In her three-set victory over Kontaveit, Williams raised her level of tennis to a level that many thought she could no longer achieve. The accuracy and power of his widely feared serve appear to have returned, as has his speed on the court.
Now, on the eve of her third-round match against Australian Ajla Tomljanovic, perceptions around what Williams could achieve have certainly changed. For the first time at this year’s US Open, she will enter a match as a favorite and with the weight of hope that she should win.
Not that this is anything new for one of the greatest athletes of all time.
Tomljanovic, currently world No. 46, has reached a career-high 38 this season and has had notable successes in 2022, including quarter-finals at Wimbledon and the recent Cincinnati Open.
The crowd is likely to be a determining factor once again on Friday, as it was in the second round when an overwhelmed Kontaveit struggled in a noisy atmosphere.
“It was difficult,” Kontaveit told reporters after his defeat. “It was something I had never experienced before. I don’t think it was a personal attack on me or anything. I mean, it’s fair.
“It was so hard to deal with the crowds and everything,” she added, bursting into tears. “I think that was the hardest part of this match.”
How Tomljanovic copes with the atmosphere will be just as important as how she copes with the 23-time Grand Slam champion watching her from the other side of the court.
During her run at the US Open, Williams enjoyed support from some of the biggest names in the sport, including a pumped-up Tiger Woods, who was on hand to Arthur Ashe for his second-round win.
Former men’s world number one Roger Federer, winner of 20 Grand Slam titles, was the latest to offer Williams some words of encouragement.
“For now, enjoy this moment,” he said. “Enjoy the US Open. Enjoy it with whatever is coming up in the next few weeks, although I know it might be difficult for you.
“But I’m thinking of you, and you have all my respect. And I wish you all the best for your future.”
Whether Williams’ run ends on Friday or not, her electrifying performances at the US Open ended an illustrious career.