WHAT HAPPENED: Serena Williams is timeless.
On Opening Night in a sold-out, celebrity-filled Arthur Ashe Stadium, the 40-year-old American became only the fourth woman in the Open Era to win matches in her teens, 20s, 30s and 40s, advancing to the second round of the US Open with a 6-3, 6-3 victory over 80th-ranked Danka Kovinic of Montenegro.
Williams, who joined her sister Venus Williams, Hall of Famer Martina Navratilova and Japan’s Kimiko Date in matching the feat, also kept her perfect first-round record intact in Flushing Meadows, improving to a spotless 21-0.
Most of the record 29,402 in attendance, which included such A-listers as Bill Clinton, Hugh Jackman, Spike Lee, Mike Tyson, Lindsey Vonn and Queen Latifah, were there to catch one last glimpse of the most dominant women’s tennis player of the Open Era, whose 23 Grand Slam singles titles include a co-record six at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Signs reading “Welcome to the Williams Show,” “Queen of the Court” and “Thank you, Serena!” were spotted throughout the stadium, the partisan gathering showing their allegiance from the first ball.
It looks like those fans will get (at least) another chance to see her this week in singles.
“When I walked out, the reception was really overwhelming,” said Williams. “It was loud, and I could feel it in my chest. It was a really good feeling. It's a feeling I'll never forget. That meant a lot to me.
“I was just thinking, ‘Is this for real? Really?’ At the same time, I'm also thinking, ‘I still have a match to play, and I want to be able to play up to this reception.’ It was so loud. I just was overwhelmed in a good way. At the same time, it's like you have to be focused, you have to be laser-focused. That's what I needed to do, and that's what I tried to do.”
You had to feel for Kovinic, the only player from the tiny Balkan nation of just over 600,000 inhabitants ever to compete at a Grand Slam. The 27-year-old has played on some big stages, reaching three WTA finals. Earlier this year, she reached the third round of both the Australian Open and Roland Garros. But she came into Monday’s blockbuster riding a five-match losing streak and was tasked with halting the career of a home-Slam favorite whose fame long ago transcended the sports world.
Understandably, there were some nerves. The opening set featured four breaks of serve through the first six games, neither player finding much in the way of rhythm. Williams managed to distance herself in the eighth game, breaking her opponent at love for a 5-3 advantage. Her black Nike dress glittering like the night sky, she would serve out the opening set in 55 minutes.
Serving at 2-all, 15-40 in the second set, Kovinic sent a forehand beyond the baseline to surrender the break and all the momentum Williams would need.
While Williams’ serve, perhaps the single most potent shot in the annals of the women’s game, at times let her down in the first set, she sure hit her stride in the second. She would finish with nine aces to six double faults, and landed 43 of her 66 first-serves in the one-hour, 39-minute match. It was only Williams’ fifth tour-level match in 13 months, and just her second victory.
Fittingly, Williams’ daughter, Olympia, watched the proceedings from courtside, sporting beads in her hair just as her mom did when she first won the title here as a teenager in 1999.
“At this point, honestly, everything is a bonus for me, I feel,” said Williams. “I think every opponent is very difficult. I've seen that over the summer. The next one is even more difficult.”
MATCH POINT: Williams had defeated players from 48 different countries, but until Monday had never faced an opponent from Montenegro.