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Serena turns back clock with stunning victory over world No.2 Kontaveit

  • Matt Trollope

There was a sense of finality about Serena Williams’ first-round match at the US Open two nights ago.

She had revealed in the weeks prior, in a first-person piece in Vogue, she was “evolving away from tennis”. The US Open was expected to be her last-ever tournament, an expectation solidified when she ruled out a trip to Australian Open 2023 in a more recent interview with TIME magazine.

The atmosphere on Monday night, therefore, was swollen with emotion – mostly joyous, somewhat bittersweet, always electric – as legions of fans processed the fact this could be the last time they ever saw the 23-time Grand Slam champion compete.

But Williams won, beating Danka Kovinic to spark a rapturous reception. Tribute messages, video montages and presentations aside, there was another match to complete.

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That came on Wednesday night, against world No.2 Anett Kontaveit. This Arthur Ashe Stadium appearance was more about the tennis itself, rather than the ceremony surrounding it.

And Serena came to play.

In one of the most extraordinary performances of her career, Williams – less than a month from her 41st birthday, and just 14 days after being bagelled by Emma Raducanu in a Cincinnati first-round loss – out-hit, out-retrieved and out-competed Kontaveit to win 7-6(4) 2-6 6-2 in almost two-and-a-half hours.

She will next play Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic, who sealed a three-set win just as Williams was storming down the home straight – and whipping the crowd into a frenzy as she did it.

"I'm a pretty good player," she laughed during her on-court interview. "This is what I do best. I love a challenge. I love rising to the challenge.

"I haven't played many matches but I've been practising really well, and my last few matches, it just wasn't coming together.

"The last couple of matches, here in New York, it's really come together.”

Williams’ match-up with Kontaveit was the first time she had faced a top-10 opponent in 19 months. Not since Australian Open 2021, where she faced three in succession – Aryna Sabalenka, Simona Halep and Naomi Osaka – before Osaka ended her run in the semifinals.

But perhaps Williams sensed more vulnerability in Kontaveit, a player whose Grand Slam results do not align with the number next to her name.

Since reaching her only major quarterfinal at AO 2020, the Estonian had passed the third round just once in nine Grand Slam appearances, and at no stage in the past two seasons. In 24 career Grand Slam matches against top-40 opponents, her record was 6-18.

Kontaveit herself claimed underdog status against Williams, saying: “I think it's going to be one of those matches this year that I haven't had too many where I just have no pressure on me.”

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It was an eyebrow-raising statement from the world’s second-ranked player, who had won almost 50 matches in the previous 12 months.

Williams, in that same span, had played just five, and won only two.

That was because injuries, plus a sense of feeling “lost” and uncertain about her playing future, had sidelined her for almost 12 months, before her return to singles action at Wimbledon.

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But as this US Open match unfolded before another record night-time crowd at Flushing Meadows – attendees included Tiger Woods, Gladys Knight, Spike Lee, Zendaya and Seal – it became apparent that Williams still possessed the level to match it with one of the world’s top players.

In the end, staggeringly, her level proved superior.

Fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium celebrate as Serena Williams seals victory over No.2 seed Anett Kontaveit to reach the third round of the US Open. (Getty Images)

Kontaveit is a fearsome ball-striker, but she couldn’t reliably hit through Williams, despite playing a high-quality match with more winners than unforced errors.

Serena simply seemed to like Kontaveit’s ball. 

The American’s impressive movement and consistency allowed her to extend rallies and often swing them in her favour; the two women slugged it out in some glorious exchanges in one of the most compelling matches of the tournament so far.

Complementing the movement and consistency was Williams’ vaunted serve; when ahead 5-4 in the tiebreak, two powerful first serves secured her the first set – the second was an ace.

She would finish the match with a double-digit ace total, a throwback to her halcyon days of dominating the women’s game.

She shrugged off a second-set lapse to return re-energised in the third, and on several occasions brought the sold-out crowd to its feet – especially when she won a wild point to hold for a 5-2 lead.

By this point, she had broken Kontaveit’s spirit, and proved it by breaking the Estonian to love in the final game.

Now she is through to the third round, in a bottom eighth of the draw now completely devoid of seeds. 

Could she go all the way? She is extremely wary of Tomljanovic, while at the same time loving the wave she is riding in New York. 

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“I cannot think that far (ahead). I'm here, like I said. I'm having fun and I'm enjoying it. Honestly, I've had so many tough matches the last I don't know how long, that I just feel like … everyone that I play is just going to be really, really difficult,” Williams said.

“It’s no rush here. I’m loving this crowd… it’s really fantastic.

“There’s still a little left in me. We’ll see.”