As Serena Williams desperately tried to drag herself through the first set of the match that could have marked the end, she was struggling badly. She had been sucked into an endless service game at 5-3 and she could only fight to hold on. She eventually faced her fourth break point of the game, the pressure rising with each one. And then, just like that, she took Arthur Ashe Stadium back to the past: ace, ace, unreturned serve. Set. Williams walked towards her seat, she clenched both of her fists and she roared into the sky.
The serve, the fight and the attitude have all been some fundamental sights in tennis for two and a half decades. After these weeks, they will likely never be seen again.
If there was any doubt about the significance of Williams’ imminent departure, the spectacle that greeted her arrival on Arthur Ashe Stadium for her likely final tournament nailed it home. Mike Tyson sat next to Martina Navratilova. Gladys Knight appeared to Midnight Train to Georgia playing in the background. In Williams’ player box, her daughter, Olympia, emerged in the stands with beads in her braids, a full circle moment.
After Danka Kovinić made her way on to Arthur Ashe Stadium to relative golf claps, Williams’ entrance was preceded by a video narrated by Queen Latifah. She entered in a costume that sparkled from head to toe in diamonds, from her hair to the bedazzled cape that trailed her on to the court. Both Kanye West’s Diamonds from Sierra Leone and a deafening, prolonged roar from he crowd soundtracked her arrival. As they warmed up, the screens around the edge of Arthur Ashe Stadium read “greatest of all time” and the announcer listed Williams’ achievements in painstaking detail.
Williams has contested the biggest matches in the world, she has willed her way from the brink and she has held all four grand slams at once. At the height of her powers, when dominance was her middle name, her mental strength was peerless. But she has never experienced anything like this, playing with the knowledge that this is the end.
Under such pressure, she fared well and she performed far better than in her other recent outings. Her nerves were naturally present from the beginning and she double faulted twice in her opening game. Even after she immediately led by a break, she could not settle. Every roar from the crowd initially seemed to be an unwelcome reminder of the significance of this moment, and as her forehand leaked unforced errors she initially seemed overwhelmed.
But Williams refused to finish her career with a first round loss. She has struggled badly in recent months, winning only once in her three prior singles events and being subjected to a 6-4, 6-0 defeat by Emma Raducanu two weeks ago in Cincinnati. “I was really emotional in Toronto and Cincinnati,” she said afterwards. “It was very difficult. I’m not saying it’s not difficult now. It’s extremely difficult still because I absolutely love being out there.”
Her desperation to end her career on a positive note was palpable. It was audible in her little footsteps squeaking on the court during every point, the drop shots she chased down at full sprint and the grunts that punctuated every important moment. From her player box, Rennae Stubbs, her new consultant for one tournament only, took advantage of the new coaching rules to holler out loud positive affirmations.
Amid the crowd’s constant screams, Kovinić was composed and present, irritating Williams with her consistency, length and booming first serve. But after her tepid start, Williams slowly found her serve and the free points it unlocked. She recovered from a break down to win the first set and then after struggling badly with the forehand, errors flowing freely, she began to unload with increasing freedom. By the end of the match, she was playing as she always should, imposing herself from behind the baseline.
There was a time, not too long ago, when every Williams victory was merely expected. How quickly things change. As Williams processed her victory, she struck a completely different note to her usual outlook. “Everything is a bonus for me,” she said. From the audience, the feeling was mutual. As she reached match point, almost every fan in Arthur Ashe stood up and watched the entire final point on their feet, craning their necks to get one last look of Williams at full flow.
After a career of shattering expectations, Williams has achieved too much for her to not believe in herself as she next faces Anett Kontaveit, the out of form world No 2. She will head to their second round match determined to engineer at least one last signature moment. Even now, at 40 years old, with her recent struggles, it is hard to cast doubt on her ability to do so.
After the victory, Williams stayed on court for the ceremony where Gayle King and Billie Jean King spoke and a video narrated by Oprah played. Olympia, Williams’ husband, Alexis Ohanian, and her sister, Isha, stood by the side of the court. Williams spoke to the audience and in the middle of her comments, she succinctly underlined why this is so meaningful. “I just want people to be inspired,” said Williams. “I’m from Compton, California. And I made it.”