It could never end with a whimper. The career of Serena Williams, for many the greatest female tennis player of all time, is coming to an end, but in New York she has already got her perfect farewell. In the second round of the US Open, she rolled back the years to produce a vintage win that the adoring crowd lapped up.
It was a typically battling display from the 23-time major singles champion, who defied the odds to record only her second win in 450 days. Against second-seeded Anett Kontaveit, in what promises to be the final chapter of her illustrious career, Williams was not quite ready to put down the pen.
Instead, now at the age of 40, she was inspirational. It’s a word that has so often resonated with fans of hers given her the way she has changed sport for women, fought against racial inequality and dealt with the tests of motherhood across her career.
Kontaveit was set to play the role of the executioner and many in attendance gathered to witness Williams’ last bow, but she has never been one to follow the script. Instead, she dug in in the first set and made it to a tie-break where a battle of wills ensued. You don’t want to catch Serena in this sort of mood. She used her trademark power to pick out the corners and although she has lost some speed as her career has progressed, she is still such a good striker of the ball. An ace to seal the first set brought a first clench from Williams, and a standing ovation from the crowd.
But when the Estonian raced through the second set 6-2 to level the scores, she was met with near-silence. She had restored normality, but nobody wanted normality. Serena certainly didn’t. The third set was a blur, a throwback to the noughties where the American simply dominated Grand Slam tournaments. She bagged an early break and didn't look back, pummelling her opponent into submission until finally match point arrived. With one swift double handed backhand she sent the jam-packed Arthur Ashe Stadium into raptures.
7-6, 2-6, 6-2. The scoreline outlined the story of the rollercoaster encounter, but not the emotion and feeling behind it. Williams was the glittering star of New York, sparkling on court as brightly as her outfit did under the lights. The crowd did not feel like they were watching a fading favourite, but instead transported back in time to the age where Serena was the greatest.
Even Tiger Woods was in the crowd cheering his compatriot on, swept up in the emotion of the occasion. A man who has achieved so much in his own discipline watched on as one of sport’s greats got her fitting farewell.
Serena's legend lives on for a couple more days at least when she faces Ajla Tomljanović in round three, but she has now got what she came to her final US Open for. A heroic win and a performance that allowed fans to reminisce about the glory days. If this was to be her last ever win, it was the perfect final memory. 40 years old and still capable of beating the best on her day. That’s why she is the greatest.
*18+ | BeGambleAware