Serena Williams can call it “evolving” or “retiring” or whatever she wants. And she can be coy about whether or not this U.S. Open will actually mark the end of her playing days. Those 23 Grand Slam titles earned that right.
If she keeps playing like this, who knows how long this farewell will last?
No matter what happens once her trip to Flushing Meadows is over, here is what is important to know after Wednesday night: The 40-year-old Williams is still around, she’s still capable of terrific tennis, she's still winning — and, like the adoring spectators whose roars filled Arthur Ashe Stadium again — she's ready for more.
Williams eliminated No. 2 seed Anett Kontaveit 7-6 (4), 2-6, 6-2 in the U.S. Open’s second round to ensure that she will play at least one more singles match at what she’s hinted will be the last tournament of her illustrious career.
“There’s still a little left in me,” Williams said with a smile during her on-court interview, then acknowledged during her post-match news conference: ”These moments are clearly fleeting."
After beating 80th-ranked Danka Kovinic in straight sets Monday, then collecting her 23rd victory in her past 25 matches against someone ranked Nos. 1 or 2 against Kontaveit on Wednesday, the six-time champion at Flushing Meadows will play Friday for a spot in the fourth round.
Her opponent will be Ajla Tomljanovic, a 29-year-old Australian who is ranked 46th. They've never met, but Tomljanovic, who said she considers herself a Williams fan, figures she knows what to anticipate from the American — and from those in the seats.
“I was playing on Court 7 both of my matches so far at the same time as her, and I could hear the crowd. I’m like, ‘Court 7 isn’t that close.’ I kept thinking, ‘Oh, my God, that’s annoying me and I’m not even playing against her,’" Tomljanovic said. “I don’t know how I’m going to do it.”
Making Williams' potential path possibly simpler if she can get past Tomljanovic: 2021 U.S. Open runner-up Leylah Fernandez and 2021 French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova both lost.
On Wednesday, Williams hit serves at up to 119 mph, stayed with Kontaveit during lengthy exchanges of big swings from the baselines and conjured up some of her trademark brilliance when it was needed most.
After pulling out a tight first set, then faltering in the second, Williams headed to the locker room for a bathroom break before the third.
Something had to give, someone had to blink.
When they resumed, it was Williams who lifted her level and emerged as the better player.
Just as she’s done so many times, on so many stages, with so much at stake.
“I'm just Serena. After I lost the second set, I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, I better give my best effort because this could be it,’” Williams said, surely echoing the thoughts of everyone paying any attention.
“I never get to play like this — since ’98, really," she said. "Literally, I’ve had an ‘X’ on my back since ’99,” the year she claimed her first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open at age 17.
Whatever rust accumulated when Williams missed about a year of action before returning to the tour in late June appears to have vanished. She was 1-3 in 2022 entering the U.S. Open.
“Now it’s kind of coming together,” Williams said. “I mean, it had to come together today.”
Williams has doubles to play, too. She and her sister, Venus, have won 14 major championships as a team and will begin that event Thursday night.