FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. – There has been magic in the Queens air so many times when Serena Williams has stepped on the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Wednesday night, in what could have been her last singles match ever, was no different. In what is expected to be the final tournament of her legendary, sport-changing career, Williams took down No. 2 seed Anna Kontaveit at the US Open in front of a record night session crowd of 29,959 -- and it sure felt like all 29,959 were rooting for Serena.
To her credit, Kontaveit never, ever backed down from the magnitude of this particular situation -- one she said she'd never experienced before.
"It was [Serena's] moment. I was very aware of that," she said after the match.
Kontaveit never played like an underdog, despite being one in every way but on paper. After the entire stadium helped will Williams to a 7-4 tiebreaker to win the first set 7-6, the Estonian came right back out like it never happened and quickly won the first three games en route to winning the second set, 6-2.
But in the third set, that Queens magic reared its head again for Williams, for what seemed like the millionth time in her career. She pulled off a miracle. The 40-year-old star, who is 14 years older than Kontaveit, came out and quickly won the first game. Then, critically, she broke Kontaveit's serve.
At that point, the killer instinct that Williams has always possessed, the one that brought her to the pinnacle of American sports, showed up and carried her to a 6-2 third set win.
"It's a weird mixture of embracing but also staying focused," Williams said of rising to the occasion in the second-round match.
The question now becomes, after knocking out the second ranked women's tennis player on the planet: can Serena actually go out on top and win this tournament? Can she keep rising to the occasion?
There's a lot of historical precedent that goes into answering that.
If she does win, it will be Williams' 24th Grand Slam, more than any player in the Open Era and tied overall for the career mark with Margaret Court. It will also be her record seventh US Open title, one more than Chris Evert.
As for the evidence of Williams going on a run like this, the precedent is there at the US Open ... in this way.
She is now 51-11 against seeded players and 18-6 when facing a higher seed in New York. She's also 24-9 against top 10 seeds. And when it comes to the US Open, vs. top five seeds, she is 16-4. All the way back in 1999 -- another reminder of Williams' stunning longevity -- Serena, as the No. 7 seed, eliminated No. 4 Monica Seles, No. 2 Lindsay Davenport and No. 1 Martina Hingis to win this very tournament.
This is not 1999. A whopping 23 years later, though, Williams has a shot to go on a similar run. It is right there in front of her. Big names like Naomi Osaka and Emma Randucanu -- stars who have proven themselves in Grand Slams -- are not standing in Serena's way at the moment. Her next match is on Friday against unseeded Ajla Tomljanovic. Should she beat Tomljanovic, Williams wouldn't play a seeded player in the 4th round either, with (23) Barbora Krejcikova and (14) Laylah Ferndandez, the runner up at last year's Australian Open, already out the way in her section of the draw.
This is all becoming reminiscent of what a fellow American tennis star, Jimmy Connors, did in 1991 in the twilight of his career. He was 39 and made the semis at the US Open, taking down seeds before fizzling out vs. No. 4 Jim Courier. But boy, did he give Flushing Meadows something to root for on the way.
Connors, famously, said "Isn't this what they pay for? This is what they want" regarding the fan support at the US Open that year.
Of course, Williams wants to replicate that run Connors had, but go the extra mile and win it all in the place where she's already done that six times. She's already given the fans at Arthur Ashe so much to root for, dating all the way back to 1999 when she first won. She'll look to keep the magic going on Friday.