A little first pump, a big dance, and a huge smile. It was yet another first round win at the US Open for Serena Williams, but it was far from just another first round win at the US Open for Serena Williams. Ahead of her impending retirement from the sport that she has revolutionized, Williams opened what is likely her final event ever with a 6-3, 6-3 win over Danka Kovinic.
Williams will face No. 2 seed Anett Kontaveit in the second round Wednesday.
In a match of this magnitude, it was easy to make so much of every point, of every game. When Williams found herself facing two break points in the opening game, it must have been the nerves. When she clawed back to win that game and the next, the stage must have been too big for Kovinic. But then Kovinic won three straight games. Had the only player in the WTA rankings from Montenegro settled in? Were we about to embark on a rollercoaster of shaky nerves and, at times, shakier tennis?
In truth, there were no conclusions to be drawn from those early games. There never are. Instead, Williams settled in. She broke Kovinic back in a lengthy sixth game to get back on serve at 3-3, and when given an inch, she took a mile, holding serve at love to take a 4-3 lead and then breaking Kovinic at love to get a game away from a first set win.
That game didn't come easily. Williams staved off four break points and finally came out on top with a huge serve. Williams reacted with an emphatic fist pump as the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd erupted.
It was far from a perfect set for Williams, but the grit and composure she showed in crucial moments was the difference: She saved eight of 10 break points against her and converted three of five break points against Kovinic. The ability to win while far from your best is vital, and Williams, in the biggest first-round match of her career, showed she absolutely still has it. The visceral reaction was for good reason, too: She entered the night 98-3 at US Open after winning the first set.
After Williams finally found her serve, it became 99-3 in straightforward fashion. In the second set, Williams committed just one double fault (she had five in the first set). Williams put 79% of her first serves in and won 93% of those points, up from 61% and 68%, respectively, in the first set. She did not face a single break point and won 16 of 19 service points overall. It was total domination and a resounding way to finish a magical night.
She's now 21-0 in first round matches at the US Open.
In her first-person farewell essay in Vogue in early August, Williams wrote, "Unfortunately I wasn't ready to win Wimbledon this year. And I don't know if I will be ready to win New York." One match in, she's certainly more ready than she was at Wimbledon, but there's still a long, long way to go. She will either leave Queens with her seventh US Open title – a number that would break her tie with Chris Evert for most in the Open Era, man or woman – or she won't. The odds are overwhelmingly in the favor of the latter, but she has never cared about odds, and she certainly won't start now.
But Monday night wasn't about that.
Regardless of whether her time in Flushing lasts two more weeks or two more days, she will go out fighting with every ounce of energy she has. She'll battle her opponent across the net, the emotions accompanying her final tournament, the mental and physical fatigue of a Grand Slam and the fact that she's doing it all as a 40-year-old more than a quarter-century into her professional tennis career.
Often, the beauty of sport is that there can only be one winner. But this time, when it comes to this player at this tournament, the beauty is in the fight. The perseverance and the courage to try to overcome all the factors working against her. Williams certainly needed it during her rocky start, and we should consider ourselves lucky that we get to watch it, likely for the last time.
For so long, we took Williams' greatness for granted. She won her first Slam in 1999 and her most recent in 2017. We thought it would never end, because for so long, it seemed that way. The end often comes slowly and then all at once.
And now, Serena Williams' greatness is a different type of greatness. The greatness to compete, even when the odds are long, the preparation difficult, the end near. A greatness we ought to appreciate in all its glory.
Monday night provided exactly that.