NEW YORK -- After advancing to the US Open’s second round, Serena Williams was asked if her opening victory had answered any questions she might have had about her ability to compete at the age of nearly 41.
“I don’t think I had any questions,” she said.
Neither should we.
Williams defeated World No.2 Anett Kontaveit 7-6(4), 2-6, 6-2 on Wednesday night before another raucous, rollicking record crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Again facing the last singles match of her glorious career, she moved better and played freer than she has in recent outings.
For the second straight match, Williams’ opponent seemed more unnerved by the momentous circumstances, particularly in critical moments, than she did. After the high emotions of the opening night spectacle, she was more composed and consistent against a far better player ranked 78 spots higher.
Mary Joe Fernandez, conducting the on-court interview, observed that Williams’ evolution away from tennis was taking some time.
“It’s no rush here,” Williams said. “I’m loving this crowd.
“I’m a pretty good player. This is what I do. I love a challenge, and I’m rising to the challenge.”
And now, the expectations become greater. Serena will be a significant favorite against Ajla Tomljanovic in Friday’s third round. And with a reasonably favorable draw, people will be asking in earnest if she can actually win this thing.
"I'm just pleased I showed up because the last few tournaments I didn't show up," Williams said. "But I've been practicing really well and I'm pleased that I'm finally seeing my practice come into my matches, so that's nice."
With another record crowd of 29,959 -- including Tiger Woods and sister Venus in her player box -- emphatically behind her, Serena won the first-set tiebreak with two unreturnable serves, the second an ace outside. But, clearly, the effort left her drained. Kontaveit ran away with the second set, winning six of eight games versus the six-time US Open champion.
Williams scored the first big blow of the third set, breaking Kontaveit’s serve when a forehand from the 26-year-old Estonian soared long. After winning the first three points of the third game, Williams seemed positioned to take a 3-0 lead but Kontaveit showed remarkable poise and converted her second break point.
Naturally, Williams broke right back to take a 3-1 lead. This time she backed it up with a tidy service game. And the next time, she saved a break point to take a 5-2 lead, bringing out the double fist pump.
When Williams’ backhand winner sailed inside the line, it was like 1999 -- when she won her first major here at the US Open as a 17-year-old -- all over again.
"I don't have anything to prove. I don't have anything to win. I have absolutely nothing to lose," she said.
"Honestly, I never get to play like this since '98 really. Literally, I've had an X on my back since '99. It's kind of fun. I really enjoy just coming out and enjoying it. It's been a long time since I've been able to do that."
“At this point, honestly, everything is a bonus for me I feel,” Williams said before the Kontaveit match. “I think every opponent is very difficult. I’ve seen that over the summer. The next one is even more difficult. I’m just not even thinking about that. I’m just thinking about just this moment. I think it’s good for me just to live in the moment now.”
Remarkably, Williams now has a 75-2 record in second round at Slams with her only losses coming to sister Venus at 1998 Australian Open and Garbińe Muguruza at 2014 Roland Garros. She still has never lost in the first two rounds of the US Open.
"I think she played really well," Kontaveit said. "I mean, I thought I didn't play a bad match at all. She definitely raised her level in the third set. She played amazing."
Casual tennis fans might not know the name, but Kontaveit earned her No.2 spot with consistent results beginning at the end of 2021. She leads all WTA Tour players in hard-court wins since the beginning of 2021. All five of her WTA titles came in the past 13 months.
Interestingly, the 26-year-old Estonian has lost her last three second-round matches at the majors, at this year’s Australian Open (Clara Tauson), Wimbledon (Jule Niemeier) and US Open (Williams) after having won the previous seven. It was the first time she’s lost to a player ranked outside the Top 100 at a Grand Slam.
“Honestly, after I lost the second set, I said, 'My goodness, I better give my best effort because this could be it,'" Williams said.
“The last couple matches here in New York it’s really come together. There’s still a little left in me. We’ll see.”
As the tributes have washed over the Billie Jean King USTA National Tennis Center, Williams has avoided them for the most part.
“I’ve kept my head super low throughout this whole process, ever since the news came out three weeks ago,” she told reporters Monday. “I’m really good at putting myself in a bubble. That’s kind of what I’ve been doing. Sometimes I’ll hear a snippet of this, a snippet of that.
“But for me, in order to get through it, because it’s not easy, but to just get through the emotions and everything that I’m feeling, I just had to just kind of just go in and just be sort of alone and just off all kinds of media, social media and stuff. Yeah, I’m just trying to deal with that.”
She’ll have to deal with it -- we all will -- for at least a few more days.