Serena Williams is in the process of privatizing the evening sessions of the Arthur-Ashe and she does not leave it to anyone to set the mood for the evenings. Welcomed like a rock star Monday at the dawn of her last US Open, the American did it again on Wednesday evening and will also be there on Thursday, in doubles with her sister Venus, then probably Friday for her third singles of the week. Because last night, the former world No. 1 once again worked her magic by defeating world No. 2 Anett Kontaveit in the second round (7-6 2-6, 6-2).
This farewell tour takes an extraordinary turn and even the organization, which showed a video with a little taste of warming up after the victory of the hostess, seems taken aback. The main actress, she looks rather delighted with her shot, on the verge of laughter when Mary Joe Fernandez asked her ingenuously if she was surprised. “I’m just Serena”, laughed the interested party after having checked that she had understood the question. As “to be Serena” is synonymous with pushing the limits, the youngest of the Williams sisters is still doing so when it comes time to launch her last fires.
A rising level of play
Not many people would have imagined such a scenario when they saw her leave the court on a 6-0 against Emma Raducanu a fortnight ago in Cincinnati. But the current 413th in the world will be there for the third round of this US Open. On Monday, Danka Kovinic seemed a bit tender against the scale of the event during the second set. But for this second round, Williams faced the world No. 2, who is certainly recovering slowly from a long Covid, but was a much more formidable and more experienced opponent.
The American managed to further raise her level compared to two days earlier, especially on serve (eleven aces, 75% of points won behind her first). As this is the barometer of her game, she quickly showed that you would have to walk on her to get her out of this court which is her garden. She was the first to offer herself opportunities on opposing service games and Kontaveit began to feel the breath of thousands of people on her back (29,959 spectators for the night session, a new record). On break point at 3-3, the public showed up loudly when she missed her first ball. “Please”repeated the referee before the Estonian managed her second, signaling to everyone that she would have strong nerves.
Serena Williams on Wednesday night in New York. (M. Segar/Reuters)
A decisive public
But she couldn’t put out the smoldering fire for long, less so at the start of the match than in the first round, and when she finally gave up her serve at 4-4, the stadium exploded for the first time. Williams did not know how to take advantage of the opportunity, suddenly feverish when she had been so solid on her serve and conceded her face-off in turn. She pulled herself together to win the tie-break in front of standing stands.
And then, in a striking parallelism, the American decompressed and the public became silent, totally sluggish when her champion had to defend three break points from the start of the second set. Kontaveit took advantage of the lull to investigate the games and pick up the score in a second act in his hand, greeted by a handful of polite applause. Fans were waiting for the player to wake up, unless it was the other way around. They all resumed their exhausting waltz for the opponent at the start of the third set.
An open board now
Williams put on full pressure, the audience responded by rising as one woman on every important point. It’s hard to choose an exchange that sums up this total merger. Maybe in this game, at 4-2 where she had to defend a break point. On a point of 19 shots, she slashed her opponent with a long line backhand after several defenses from another time. And there was this bell, improbable, which hung the line before it concluded the point of a half-volley to make the most chilled supporters hysterical.
The clamor rose, unstoppable, as Kontaveit tried to stay in the game one last time. Too complicated, too much pressure. The Estonian remained powerless on the ultimate winning comeback of her rival who twirled once again to celebrate her success. Everyone can now afford to dream out loud. By beating Kontaveit, Williams opened the table well. Ajla Tomljanovic is waiting for him on the third lap and you will have to be very strong to resist the steamroller in motion. When Serena and the audience come together, suddenly anything becomes possible.