NEW YORK -- She had lost three of four matches since coming back to play at Wimbledon after a year’s absence. But on Monday night, she was back home at the US Open.
Four weeks shy of her 41st birthday, Serena Williams, playing in her final career event, defeated Danka Kovinic 6-3, 6-3.
Williams has now won 107 matches in New York, and 102 of them have come in Arthur Ashe Stadium, nearly half of them at night.
She’s already scheduled to play doubles later this week with older sister Venus, but Serena has managed another singles date -- with No.2 seed Anett Kontaveit on Wednesday. The anticipation, like Williams’ legacy, will be enormous.
The roaring, sometimes soaring crowd at sold-out Ashe, which set an all-time night-session attendance record for an opening night with 29,402 fans, were with her every step of the way. Williams became only the fourth woman in the Open Era to win matches as a teenager, as well as in their 20s, 30s and 40s, joining Martina Navratilova, sister Venus and Kimiko Date. For the record, she’s 21-0 in the first round at the US Open, dropping only two sets versus Nicole Pratt in 1998 and Anca Barna in 2001.
In today’s world of short attention spans, let that one sink into your consciousness for a moment. There’s more: Serena turned professional more than two dozen years ago and won the first of her 23 Grand Slam singles titles 23 years ago. No wonder the current issue of Time Magazine features Williams on the cover with the headline: “The Greatest.”
The whole thing felt like a championship boxing bout.
The evening kicked off with a video tribute voiced by Beyoncé and, like so many Serena productions, it was theatrical and meticulously organized. She was covered in glitter, literally from head to toe. Her Nike-designed dress, inspired by figure skating, featured six layers -- to commemorate her six US Open titles. Her Nike shoes sported a diamond-encrusted swoosh, comprised of 400 handset diamonds.
And there was this thoughtful piece of symmetry -- 4-year-old daughter Olympia, cheering from her team box, was wearing the same kind of white beads that Serena had in her hair when she won her first US Open title as a 17-year-old. Among the other faces in the crowd: Spike Lee, Bill Clinton, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Hugh Jackman and Gladys Knight.
Williams began tentatively, losing three of the first four points, two on double faults. But in typical Serena fashion, she stroked two aces to get even and took the opening game when a Kovinic forehand found the net. She bagged the second game with a terrific get on a ball that nicked the net and followed up with a thundering overhead winner.
And then Kovinic came back to win three straight games. But Williams surged to a 5-3 lead and found herself serving for the set. It was the best game of the match and she was forced to save four break points before converting her second set point with an unreturnable serve. The crowd cheered wildly but you could hear Willliams' sharp-pitched scream above it as she pumped her fists.
Overall, she was moving considerably better than she had in losses in Toronto and Cincinnati earlier this month. Williams was down 2-1 in the second set but held serve and broke Kovinic to create the decisive advantage. Down the stretch her greatest weapon, the serve, looked eerily vintage.
The post-match ceremony, hosted by Gayle King, was a big thank you from the United States Tennis Association.
“You taught us to use our voices -- and dream big,” Billie Jean King said. “Especially for women, and women of color."
Oprah Winfrey narrated a video montage. And then Williams spoke.
“I always feel so comfortable on this court,” she said. “When I step on the court I just want to do the best I can. The crowd was crazy. It really helped pull me through.
“It’s been such a hard decision. Because when you’re passionate about something, love something so much it’s hard to walk away. I was just like all right, now’s the time. There’s other chapters in life.
“It’s going to be Serena 2.0.”
She’s won four more US Open titles than next active players -- Venus and Naomi Osaka, who have two each.
“I haven’t seen Serena play like this in five years,” Evert said during ESPN’s telecast. “I really haven’t.”
Credit to Kovinic, the 27-year-old from Montenegro, who handled the scene with aplomb. Appearing in her fifth main draw at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, she hadn’t won since a third-round run at Roland Garros three months and three days ago, losing all five matches and 10 sets.
When it was over, after Kovinc stroked a backhand into the net, Serena smiled. To be honest, she looked relieved. As the crowd cheered, she did her trademark 360-degree spin.
Perhaps not her last.