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Serena Williams isn’t done yet after gritty first-round U.S. Open win

She knocks off the rust for a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Danka Kovinic

Serena Williams defeated Danka Kovinic in the first round of the U.S. Open. (Corey Sipkin/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — Fueled by an electric crowd and her fierce competitive fire, Serena Williams stepped onto the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday night and defied time, rust and her own frustration to extend her remarkable career at least one more round.

After a pro career of unparalleled success that began when she was 14, Williams disclosed this month that her retirement was at hand as she neared her 41st birthday. But Monday wasn’t going to be that night, she declared in gritty fashion, toppling 80th-ranked Danka Kovinic, 6-3, 6-3, to advance to the second round of the U.S. Open.

With the victory, Williams kept intact one of countless distinctions in her illustrious career. She has never lost a first-round match at the U.S. Open, bringing her mark since 1998 to 21-0. She also elevated her U.S. Open record to 107-14.

Highlights from Serena Williams’s first-round U.S. Open win over Danka Kovinic

But Williams, who has won an Open-era-record 23 Grand Slam singles titles, had played just four matches in the past 14 months, winning only one. Her most recent match, Aug. 16, ended in a lopsided, error-strewn loss to 19-year-old Emma Raducanu that lasted just 65 minutes.

So every aspect of Williams’s game, apart from experience and sheer will, was in question when she took the court Monday against the hard-hitting Kovinic. Her next hurdle is apt to be considerably higher: a second-round match Wednesday against world No. 2 Anett Kontaveit, 26, of Estonia.

After a rocky start by both players, Williams broke into a broad smile upon clinching the victory over Kovinic. After extending a warm handshake at the net, Williams executed her customary victory twirl as she acknowledged all four sides of the towering grandstands and blew kisses. Then, amid a standing ovation, she remained on court for the U.S. Open’s video tribute narrated by Oprah Winfrey.

“I’ve always just got to do the best that I can,” Williams told the audience during her on-court interview with TV personality Gayle King. “I feel so comfortable on this court and in front of everyone here.

“When I step out on the court, I just want to do the best that I can do on that particular day.”

It was unclear in the immediate aftermath of Williams’s victory the precise ramifications of her statement, in a Vogue cover story this month, that she was “evolving away from tennis.”

Will she retire at the conclusion of this U.S. Open? At the end of this season? Will she ever announce a firm retirement date or leave the door ajar, as many pros before her have done, in case she has a change of heart?

Asked during her post-match news conference if this U.S. Open would be her final tournament, she said: “I’ve been pretty vague about it. I’m going to stay vague because you never know.”

Eager to witness what might be Serena Williams's final competitive match, thousands of fans poured into the Billie Jean King Tennis Center on Aug. 29. (Video: Reuters)

The capacity crowd of roughly 24,000 took no chances on missing the moment and seized the occasion to shower her with earsplitting cheers and shouts of love, appreciation and respect for a career’s worth of entertainment and achievement.

It was hardly smooth sailing for Williams, who has long been hailed as having the greatest serve in women’s tennis. From the opening game, she struggled mightily with her ball toss and plowed one serve after another into the net.

Her emotions — and her game — were all over the place in the early going.

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After her fifth double fault through the first four games, she appeared to tear up while serving at 2-2. With a subsequent error, she was broken and faced her first deficit of the night.

But once again, Williams proved her mettle, drawing on experience, savvy and grit to compensate for anything time and age have taken away.

The stadium cracked with the electricity of a Broadway opening when Williams’s name was announced. She strode out to a standing ovation — a shimmering star in a black cape over a black figure-skating-inspired dress with long sleeves and a flouncy skirt. Every layer of her outfit, as well as her hair, was covered with crystals. On her feet were special-edition diamond-crusted Nikes with a diamond-laden swoosh along the heel.

The grandstands were packed, with nearly every fan snapping photos and selfies to preserve the moment as proof of being on hand for tennis history. Luminaries from sports, entertainment, politics — Mike Tyson, Gladys Knight and former president Bill Clinton among them — looked on. In Williams’s guest box, her daughter, Olympia, 4, looked on with her Aunt Isha Price in a matching outfit with white beads in her hair — a nod to the beads her mother wore in winning her first U.S. Open 23 years earlier. And on the plaza outside, fans without a ticket to Ashe stood shoulder to shoulder to watch on an oversize screen.

The crowd cheered Williams’s every point but fell silent as her serving woes grew.

“The crowd was crazy,” Williams said. “It really helped pull me through.”

Simply holding serve was a struggle in the first game; she committed five consecutive faults at one point.

But she went on to break Kovinic, who was competing against Williams and at the cavernous Ashe Stadium for the first time, in the next game, energizing the crowd by plucking a lob out of the sky for a winner to break for a 2-0 lead.

The play was patchy by both players.

Williams’s rust was evident. But as she has done so often in her career, she put her head down and turned her frustration into power.

She stormed back from the deficit to close the rocky opening set in 55 minutes.

As the second set unfolded, glimpses of the champion’s dominance came to the fore. Williams started moving better and, in turn, serving better. She ran down drop shots that seemed beyond her reach, cracked winning volleys and rarely erred on her timing.

With each ace, she grew stronger, which seemed to chip away at Kovinic’s belief.

Midway through the second set, Williams was in full control, and she raced to a 4-2 lead.

In a matter of minutes, it seemed, Williams had three match points as she readied for Kovinic’s serve. The rally proved short-lived, with Kovinic blasting one final forehand into the net.

Williams has given the sport her full range of emotions over her career — much of it on this exact stage, where she has roared with defiance, shrieked with joy, screamed tirades, glared at some rivals and consoled others, buried her tear-streaked face in her hands and thrown back her head in triumph.

Monday night, after ensuring her singles career will last at least one more round by overpowering a competitor 13 years younger, a smile of satisfaction was enough.

“I love this sport, and I feel like the sport has given me so much,” Williams said when asked if she envisioned a role in tennis after retirement. “I don’t see myself not a part of tennis. I don’t know how I’m going to be a part of tennis. We’ve come too far together to not have anything to do with it.”

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