Serena Williams on the old happy-go-lucky second night at the US Open | Serena Williams

DThroughout the breathless, intense first set in what was the last singles match of her career, Serena Williams World No. 2 Annette Kontavet stared down and responded to her challenge with an immaculate performance. However, in the second set, he barely held on. She saved a break point at 1-3 with a sweet, curling ace that sent her hands up to the sky, unable to find that shot every time she served.

If this was any other 40-year-old in tennis history, with the rust of a year’s layoff and the nerves of his final event, such lapses would be expected. But this is Serena Williams. Not only did she hold herself to stratospheric standards, she somehow met them perfectly on the second night of her Arthur Ashe Stadium residency. In defeating Kontaviet, she delayed her singles retirement for another round.

After the matchup of his opening-round win, its on-court ceremony and Billie Jean King speech, the second round felt different. The crowd was a little more muted as Williams laser-focused, not just saying goodbye. She was immediately locked in during a high-intensity first set, filled with quality shotmaking from both but dominated by Williams’ serve – she is still, at 40, the best server in the world. Under suffocating pressure, she sealed the tiebreak for years – a serve that didn’t return after an ace.

To her credit, Kontaveit played a faultless second set, blazing winners from both wings and the kiss line, but Williams simply responded and raised her level even further, managing the final very well. In the final games, he took complete control of the baseline and destroyed Kontaveit’s serve until the end.

This is quite an achievement considering her limitations. His first serve was charming, but averaged only 99 mph in the first set – he didn’t serve under much pressure last year, so was more cautious early on, prioritizing percentage over accuracy and power. His drive, historically one of his greatest assets, has waned significantly, though he found a way to dig deep for a 19-stroke rally in the third set when he needed it most. Despite not having match fitness, he was a rock in crucial moments.

In two hours and 27 minutes on court, she played all the hits at least once: aces she saved for key points and vicious return winners, roars and agonies, her heart in her diamond-encrusted shirts. Halfway through the third set, Williams became frustrated with an electronic line call and let umpire Alison Hughes know. He then went back to basics and unleashed his anger on winning tennis.

Serena Williams celebrates her win. Photo: Jason Senes/EPA

It was especially surprising considering how far from such form she had been since her return. Williams lost in the first round of Wimbledon, being easily eliminated by Belinda Bencic in Toronto, then losing to Emma Raducanu 6–4, 6–0 in Cincinnati. He described the final weeks of his career as extremely difficult to deal with.

Williams arrived in New York full of confidence, but with one final chance to make any impact in the final stretch of his career, and no chance of redemption. The pressure may have been suffocating, but as she had been many times in her life, she rose to the occasion. His success came from considering his finals as a bonus. “I’ve had a big red X on my back since I won the US Open in ’99,” he said. “It’s been my whole career because I won my first Grand Slam early in my career. But here it’s different. I feel I’ve already won.

She finished with a flourish, ripping Kontaveit’s serve in the final game and sealing her victory with a backhand return winner. As former player Mary Jo Fernandez dictated in an on-court interview, her mere presence was a reminder of Williams’ ridiculous longevity. Fernandez is 51 and has been retired for 22 years, yet he and Williams were rivals in 1999. He asked Williams if he was surprised by his position on the court, which prompted a laugh and a very pointed look. “I’m Serena,” she said.

On Thursday night, Williams will return to the same venue, along with her sister Venus, as they compete together for the final time in doubles, which may be more emotional and vital than singles. She then faces Australia’s Ajla Domljanovic on Friday. It could be the night she finally says goodbye, or the next step in one final glorious run. Regardless, on Wednesday night, Serena Williams made one last demonstration to the world of an unforgettable display in full flow.

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