The Serena Williams of the old delights in the delirious second night at the US Open | Tumaini Carayol

TThroughout a breathless and intense first set in what could have been the final singles match of her career, Serena Williams stared down world No. 2 Anett Kontaveit and answered her challenge with an impeccable performance. In the second set, however, he could barely hold on. As she saved a break point at 1-3 with a sweet, curling ace, she threw her hands to the sky, furious that she couldn’t find that shot every time she served.

If this were another 40-year-old in tennis history, with the rust of a year’s layoff and nerves from his last event, such shortcomings would be expected. But this is Serena Williams. Not only did he hold himself to stratospheric standards, he somehow completely lived up to them on the delirious second night of his Arthur Ashe Stadium residency. By defeating Kontaveit, she delayed her singles retirement for another round producing at least one last legendary moment in a career full of them.

After the spectacle of her victory in the first round, with her on-court ceremony and a speech by Billie Jean King, the second round was different. The crowd was a little more muted, not just to say goodbye, while Williams was laser-focused. She was immediately shut down during the high-intensity first set, full of quality shots from both but dominated by Williams’ serve – she is still, at 40, the best server in the world. Under stifling pressure, he sealed the tiebreak as he has done so many times over the years: an unreturned serve followed by an ace.

To her credit, Kontaveit played a flawless second set, showing backhand and kissing line winners, but Williams simply responded by raising her level even further and handling the match beautifully in the end. In the last few games, she had taken complete control of the baseline and obliterated Kontaveit’s serve until the end.

It’s an all the more remarkable achievement given its limitations. Her first serve was enthralling, but she averaged just 99mph in the first set – she hasn’t served much under pressure in the past year, so she was extremely cautious initially, prioritizing accuracy and percentage over power . His swing, historically one of his biggest assets, has been noticeably diminished, but he still found a way to mount a 19-stroke rally in the third set when he needed it most. Despite his lack of fitness, he was a rock in the decisive moments.

Over the course of his two hours and 27 minutes on court, he played all the hits at least one more time: the aces and the victorious return winners he saved for the big points, roars and angst alike, his heart set. his sleeves encrusted with diamonds. Midway through the third set, Williams became frustrated with the electronic line call and let the umpire, Alison Hughes, know. Then he went back to the baseline and channeled his anger into winning tennis.

Serena Williams raises her racket and arm to the crowd as she stands on the court after her victory
Serena Williams celebrates her victory. Photo: Jason Szenes/EPA

It was particularly surprising given how far from that form he has looked since returning. Williams lost in the first round at Wimbledon, was easily dismissed by Belinda Bencic in Toronto and then dismantled 6-4, 6-0 by Emma Raducanu in Cincinnati. He has described the last few weeks of his career as extremely difficult to handle.

Williams arrived in New York with little confidence, but with one last chance to make an impression in the final stretch of his career, and with no further chance of redemption. The pressure could have been suffocating but, as he has done so many times in his career, he rose to the occasion. His success comes from seeing his final tournament as a bonus instead of the burden it could have been. “I’ve had a big red X on my back since I won the US Open in ’99,” he said. “It’s been there my whole career, because I won my first Grand Slam early in my career. But it’s different here. I feel like I’ve already won.”

She finished with a flourish, breaking Kontaveit’s serve in the final game and sealing her victory with a backhand winner. When former player Mary Joe Fernandez dictated the courtside interview, her presence alone was a reminder of Williams’ absurd longevity. Fernandez is 51 and has been retired for 22 years, but she and Williams were rivals in 1999. She asked Williams if she was surprised by her level on the court, prompting a laugh and a very pointed look. “I’m just Serena,” she said.

On Thursday night, Williams will be back in the same place, at the same time alongside her sister, Venus, as they compete together in doubles for the last time, a spectacle that may be even more emotional and essential than the singles. She will then face Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic on Friday. It could be the night he finally says goodbye, or the next step in one last legendary career. In any case, Wednesday night gave the world at least one last demonstration of the unforgettable sight of Serena Williams at full speed.

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