New York celebrated the career of Serena Williams in raucous fashion on Monday night but the party is not over thanks to her first-round victory against Danka Kovinic.
Williams announced earlier this month that the US Open would very likely be her last tournament, bringing an end to a 27-year career that has seen her transcend tennis.
But the 40-year-old is first and foremost a tremendous competitor and she ensured at least one more night under the lights with a 6-3 6-3 triumph, with Estonian second seed Anett Kontaveit now waiting in the wings after she breezed past Jaqueline Cristian 6-3 6-0.
A record crowd had come to honour Williams and the noise grew louder and louder as a montage voiced by Queen Latifah played of Williams’ six singles titles at Flushing Meadows.
Then out came the woman herself, dressed, as only she could be, in a self-designed gown and shoes featuring diamonds, crystals and gold.
“I think when I walked out, the reception was really overwhelming,” she said later.
“It was loud and I could feel it in my chest. It was a really good feeling. It’s a feeling I’ll never forget. That meant a lot to me.”
Williams had won just one singles match since the French Open last spring, but Kovinic has not been in good form either, losing her previous five matches.
Nerves were very evident from both, particularly in the form of early double faults, but, with a wall of noise greeting every Williams winner, she began to give the crowd what they wanted.
She was certainly moving better than she had in defeat by Emma Raducanu in Cincinnati earlier this month, and her serve and groundstrokes increased in penetration as the match wore on.
The second set, while not vintage Williams, was an indication that this valedictory lap may yet have some way to go as she set up a clash with Kontaveit on Wednesday.
In Cincinnati, Williams had walked straight off court, eschewing the celebration planned for her, but here she was able to embrace the moment as a post-match ceremony saw her venerated by Billie Jean King and Oprah Winfrey.
“I do feel different,” she said.
“I think I was really emotional in Toronto and Cincinnati. 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.
“The more tournaments I play, I feel like the more I can belong out there. That’s a tough feeling to have, and to leave knowing, the more you do it, the more you can shine.
“But it’s time for me to evolve to the next thing. I think it’s important because there’s so many other things that I want to do.”
The 40-year-old has kept a low profile since announcing her decision in an essay in Vogue earlier this month while Williams’ fellow players, particularly those she directly inspired to follow in her footsteps, have been queuing up to
venerate her legacy.
“I’ll have plenty of time soon to do all that,” she added.
“I just am so grateful that they see that. I can see it, too, but I don’t overthink about it. I’m still here for the time being, just enjoying it.
“I feel grateful that I can have that impact. I never thought I would have that impact, ever. I was just a girl trying to play tennis in a time where I could develop this impact and be a voice.”
Williams will also play doubles with sister Venus and, an enigma to the end, refused to completely shut the door on further appearances.
“I’ve been pretty vague about it, right,” she said. “I’m going to stay vague because you never know.”
Elsewhere, last year’s runner-up Leylah Fernandez, who enjoyed an extraordinary run in New York, reached round two with a 6-3 6-4 victory over Oceane Dodin.