She made a double mistake more than she would have liked. Her 25 unforced errors were not good. She plays long, grueling games that at one point in her extraordinary career might have ended in a flash.
But Serena Williams will leave the US Open, her final tournament, with at least one win.
Feeding off the energy of a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium Monday night in New York, Williams showed plenty of her signature fire—a fist here, a shout of “come on!” there. The old dominance was also on display: she won the last eight points of the match to see off her first-round opponent, Danka Kovinic of Montenegro, 6-3, 6-3.
The relatively routine early win had the energy of a final, as no doubt all of her matches at this tournament have. After that last Open run, Williams announced her retirement from tennis — and that included competing in doubles with her sister Venus.
Monday saw the second largest single-day attendance in US Open history, with a total of 71,332 spectators for the combined day and evening sessions. However, the final session set an all-time attendance record of 29,402, with Williams the big draw. Fans held up signs reading “We ♥️ Serena” from all sides of the stadium.
“When I came out, the reception was really overwhelming. It was strong and I could feel it in my chest,” Williams said. “It’s a feeling I’ll never forget.”
After the match, Australians Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis had to wait for their duel to begin – one that Kyrgios would win in straight sets – as the US Open threw a surprise tribute to Williams on Center Court. Gayle King host. Oprah Winfrey narrated video. Billie Jean King she said a few words, recalling their first meeting in 1988, when Serena was six years old. “Her serve is the most beautiful serve in the history of our sport,” King said to the delight of the crowd. “And guess what? You’re just getting started!”
Read more: What Serena Williams gave the world
Williams got off to a nervous start. A first-round exit wouldn’t hurt her legacy. But none of the celebrity-studded crowd — Queen Latifah, Gladys Knight, Hugh Jackman and Mike Tyson were among those in the seats — wanted to see that.
She faulted five straight serves in the opening game and somehow held on. Kovinich broke serve twice to take a 3-2 lead. Williams gave up a double break point; Kovinic regained the advantage. Williams then drilled a soft second serve for a winner to bring things back to deuce. Kovinic then double-faulted twice to tie the game at 3-3. Williams, back on serve, did not lose a point until the end of the set.
After wrapping up that first set with two aces and serving down the middle — in the 16th point of a back-and-forth game — that Kovnic netted, Williams pumped double fists. The roar of the crowd was ear-splitting.
The second set was more lively for Williams. She raised her knees in celebration as Kovinic sent a backhand into the net to end the match.
Williams hit enough corner winners to parry Kovinich. But she will need a lot more magic against a tougher opponent, second seed Annette Kontaveit of Estonia, on Wednesday. Not that he wanted to dwell too much on the challenges ahead.
“At this point, honestly, everything is a bonus for me,” Williams said. “It’s good that I was able to get that under my belt. I just don’t even think about it. I’m just thinking about this moment. I think it’s good for me to just live in the moment.”
She certainly deserved it.
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