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By Richard Pagliaro | Wednesday, August 31, 2022

 
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In a vintage performance, Serena Williams went warrior mode defeating world No. 2 Anett Kontaveit 7-6(4), 2-6, 6-2 to charge into the US Open third round.

Photo credit: Getty

NEW YORK—Comeback queen Serena Williams inspired spirited surround sound inside Arthur Ashe Stadium.

This US Open celebration of Serena soared to a crescendo tonight.

More: How Danielle Collins Stared Down Naomi Osaka Challenge

Turning back time, Williams went warrior mode defeating world No. 2 Anett Kontaveit 7-6(4), 2-6, 6-2 to charge into the US Open third round.

"It's no rush here," Williams told ESPN's Mary Joe Fernandez afterward. "I'm loving this crowd. Oh my goodness, it's really fantastic. There's still a little left in me. I'm a pretty good player.

"You know, this is what I do best. I love a challenge. I love rising to the challenge. Yeah, I haven't played many matches, but I've been practicing really well. In my last few matches, it just wasn't coming together. I'm like, This isn't me. The last couple matches here in New York, it's really come together. Maybe I should have traveled with you all for all those years."

In her best performance of the season, Williams hit 37 winners, including 11 aces, improving her US Open record to 108-14.

A revitalized Williams amped up the pace of her drives and amplified roaring crowd support in a vintage performance that powered her into a third-round clash vs. Australian Ajla Tomljanovic in what figures to be a festive Friday night clash. 

In a Vogue magazine essay published earlier this month, Williams suggested this US Open will be her tennis farewell as she continues her evolution away from the sport she's dominated. Williams has pressed paused on her evolution with an electric performance that invoked insane energy reminiscent of a major final.

While Williams departed the Toronto court in tears following her loss to Belinda Bencic and looked disconsolate in a quick exit after bowing to Emma Raducanu in Cincinnati, she competed with fierce desire and a sense of fun at times tonight. It's as if Williams put pressure of finality aside tonight and was intent on enjoying this experience.

"I've been practicing pretty well, but my last few matches it wasn't coming together," Williams said. "The last couple of matches here in New York it's coming together. Maybe I should have travelled with all or you all these years.

"Honestly, after I lost the second set I thought oh my goodness I gotta give my best effort because this could be it. I just wanted to do my best. Literally, I've had an X on my back since '99 and it's kind of fun to just be out enjoying it and it's been a long time since I've been able to do it."

If the retractable roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium had been closed, fans would have blown the lid off the place screaming support for the 40-year-old superstar. A US Open night-session record of 29,402 broke the opening-night record set for Williams' first-round win over Danka Kovinic.

Contesting her 30th major, Kontaveit has one Slam quarterfinal to her credit—at the 2020 Australian Open—but came out serving with command, closing a love hold to open the match.

Before a wildly supportive Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd that included  Billie Jean King, Venus Williams, Gladys Knight, Spike Lee, Tiger Woods, Lindsey Vonn and Dionne Warwick, Williams whipped a return right down the middle jamming Kontaveit for two break points in the third game. Kontaveit calmly erased both, including throwing down a 105 mph ace that helped her hold. Williams saved a break point and smacked a series of stinging serves holding to level after four games.

Tennis Express

On the surface, this was a clash between two women going in different directions. Williams was playing her sixth match in a year, while Kontaveit had won all five of her hard-court championships in the last 13 months.

"I think she played really well. I mean, I thought I didn't play a bad match at all," Kontaveit told the media. "Yeah, she definitely raised her level in the third set. She played amazing.

"Yeah, I think also in the first set she was serving so well in these important moments. Yeah, I mean, I fought really hard, thought I played a decent match. She was better today."

Quicker off the mark than she was in Cincinnati earlier this month, Williams was was crunching crackling returns right back through the middle of the court earning three break points in a physical seventh game. A lunging Serena skidded off the sideline and dropped to a squat as Kontaveit erased a third break point. The world No. 2 showed her resolve, navigating a grinding 12-minute hold for 4-3. The Estonian erased five break points through her first four service holds.

Arthur Ashe Stadium fans were roaring and reeling with each Williams strike and miss. The four-time Olympic gold-medal champion amplified the shouts, racing up to a drop shot and smacking a forehand winner down the line that helped her to hold and even after eight games. By then, both women had hit 12 winners.

Moving with vigor and hitting with venom, Williams was reaching balls that eluded her earlier this month in her Cincinnati loss to Emma Raducanu and attacking her shots.

A couple of Kontaveit misses gave Williams a sixth break. This time, Williams got the break she wanted—and a 5-4 lead—when Kontaveit sailed a shot long.

Serving for the set, Williams; backhand went awry and Kontaveit exploited it, scraping out three backhand errors to break back and level after 10 games. Williams flashed a forehand down the line to force the first-set tiebreaker.

Deadlock at 3-3, Williams elevated in an electric close. Kontaveit pushed a drop shot into the net as Williams snatched the mini break and a 5-3 lead. Blasting a big serve down the T gave Williams two set points.




The six-time champion cranked a 101 mph ace out wide to seal the 63-minute opener with a bang. Williams won 25 of 28 first-serve points, pumped five aces and took the set despite winning just three of 13 points on second serve.

Resetting, Kontaveit clubbed a forehand return winner down the line breaking to start the second set while some of the crowd were out getting refreshments.

Kontaveit was extending points and finishing with her backhand as the set progressed. Skimming a forehand off the top of the tape, the Estonian earned her second straight break for a 3-0 second-set lead.




A sharp Kontaveit lifted her level considerably in the second set. Hitting her forehand with more pace, Kontaveit cracked 10 winners versus no unforced errors through the first three games of set two. Williams got one break back when the Estonian netted a forehand.  Williams squandered a 40-love lead in the fifth game spitting up a couple of double faults and getting burned by some precise returns from Kontaveit who broke for the fourth time in her opponent's last five service games.

Generating popping power from her compact backswings, Kontaveit crunched her two-hander down the line holding at love for 5-1. The second seed slid a 105 mph ace down the middle to close a commanding second set with her fourth ace.

Williams had one set to extend her tournament or end an era. She left the court for a clothing change before returning to play for her competitive future.

Jumping on a Kontaveit second serve on break point, Williams hammered a return, but Kontaveit reflexed back a forehand that caught the edge of the sideline. Some fans booed loudly when the Hawk-Eye replay showed the shot touched the line, but Williams waved an index finger muting the dissent from fans in an act of fair play for her opponent.

After quieting the crowd, Williams thrilled them. Leaning into a forehand return, Williams ripped a return crosscourt for break point. When Kontaveit sailed a shot, Williams had the break and a 2-0 lead in the decider prompting husband Alexis Ohanian, clad in a black hoodie with "Arthur Ashe" emblazoned across the front, leaped from his seat. 




Still, Kontaveit kept coming and broke back in the third game. Blowing a 40-love lead did not faze Williams, who fired a forehand drive volley that kissed off the tape for break point and broke on an error for 3-1. This time, Williams threw down her second love hold to confirm the break for 4-1 as the faithful honored Williams with a standing ovation.

The six-time champion staved off a break point in the seventh game. Pushed well behind the baseline, Williams threw up a moon ball to buy time, moved in and walloped a drive volley winner earning a hard-fought hold for 5-2.

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Another drive volley down the line brought Williams triple match point. The 23-time Grand Slam champion crushed a backhand return down the line eliciting a sustained roar before a triumphant twirl to fans.

Can Williams make a deep run into the second week? Serena wasn't biting on that question, but says feeling the love from fans she already feels like a winner.

"I just feel like I have had a big red X on my back since I won the US Open in '99," Serena said afterward. "It's been there my entire career, because I won my first Grand Slam early in my career.

"But here it's different. I feel like I've already won, figuratively, mentally. It's just pretty awesome the things that I've done. "I never, like, accept that. I never think about it. Yeah, so tonight I was just like, Serena, you've already won, just play, be Serena. You're better than this. That's what I was able to do."


 

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