With sparkly sparkles in her hair and sparkling sparkles from what was — very perfectly — both cocktail dress and tennis shoes, Serena Williams served for the set, but in the end.
The US Open crowd was excited but nervous. Serena was a 23-time major champion. Her opponent, Danka Kovinic, was a 27-year-old who had never made it past the third round at a major. Previously, this would have taken about 53 minutes.
Serena is now 40, however, and the mother of a 4-year-old daughter. He is injured. It barely plays anymore. He is about to retire.
As such, the entire night of this first-round fight felt like a tightrope, clapping amid lingering anxiety, fear of a collapse that would bring the end, while trying to appreciate the present and cheer the moment.
That’s when Serena dug deep. That’s when he arrived back. It was then that he brought the nostalgia that everyone from movie stars to former presidents came to see perhaps one last time.
That’s when he broke two serves straight after Kovinic and took the first set in the manner he did en route to winning six singles championships here.
The Queen of Queens would have another victory at Arthur Ashe Stadium, named after the trailblazer who had inspired her family to believe she could climb improbably from the public courts to a street corner in Compton and become global superstar.
He beat Kovinic in straight sets (6-3, 6-3) to start a celebration that was in the making.
How long Williams lasts in this, her final tournament, is anyone’s guess? She will face second-seeded Anett Kontaveit on Wednesday, at least extending her singles career for a few days. (She also enters the double with Aphrodite’s older sister). The crowds will no doubt return to support her.
There are times when he can play like always. There are times when he doesn’t even waste energy sprinting after shots. Time is unbeatable and Serena, who first dazzled at Flushing Meadows in 1999 when she won the US Open as a 17-year-old with beads in her hair, is up against her.
Does not matter. It’s not about winning over a significant other — at least not for the fans. This is one more. Another night where he was the main event. Another impossible volley that inspired the imagination. One more victory could be cheered for her.
This was a celebrity-rich stand where secondary market tickets topped $5,000 a pop. After the match there was a big ceremony. This was New York, the US Open at its biggest, brightest and boldest, just the way Serena always craved it.
Early on, during practice breaks on the doubles tennis courts at East Rancho Dominguez Park, Richard Williams used to dare his daughters to dream.
They weren’t, he would say, in the middle of Compton, surrounded by a pawn shop, a used car lot and a field full of weeds. It was where their minds went.
Imagine this serve is for a major tennis championship, Richard would say. Which one do you want to win more, he would ask.
Venus Williams would always say Wimbledon, the oldest of the majors to play outside of London and known for its pristine white uniforms and immaculate grass courts and kings in the box. It felt sophisticated.
Serena saw it completely differently. He wanted the speed of the hard courts, the heat and humidity of August, the hustle and bustle of the fans, the action of the city. He wanted the wild tournament, the American Tournament.
“The Open,” it said.
So the Open would be. There he would win a major for the first time. That’s where it looks like he’d choose to leave. It was the perfect stage for this almost perfect player. The rotations. The blows. The authority. The accuracy. Fashion. The style.
It’s a global image, of course, but an American one first. A force of her nature and personality for more than her undetectable, yet vicious, self. It’s the way she carries herself, unapologetically proud in every way, for African-Americans, for women, for mothers, for little sisters, for anyone who just loves to watch the racing heart of a champion.
He sent generations of talent to accumulate, outdo, and then surpass them all. She won the Australian Open in 2017 while in the early stages of pregnancy. She returned after the birth of her daughter, Alexis Olympia, and managed to reach the finals of four more majors, including twice in New York.
And here, in what would otherwise have been just another first-round match, another night at the Open, he got excited once again. In moments of pressure she was her old, glorious self playing to those old, deafening cheers.
Straight set. Straight ahead.
Serena in New York, once again.