NEW YORK — Name any other athlete in history, please, who could do what Serena Williams is doing. Tom Brady? He never had a C-section.
Who else but Williams could turn the entire current of a tournament as she does with pure resolve? A few weeks ago, she was done, played out, scrabbling for confidence and just hoping for a decent ceremonial farewell at the U.S. Open. Now, with just a few practice sessions, she’s a factor for her 24th Grand Slam singles title after knocking off the second-ranked player in the world, 26-year-old Anett Kontaveit, with a performance so mighty and moving that you thought the crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium was going to start a rockslide with its clamor.
Whatever happens after this, not even the wonkiest numerical tennis historian can possibly still cite Margaret Court, with her dusty-paper 24 Grand Slam titles — more than half of them won before the Open era of professional tennis — in the same sentence with Williams. No champion past or present — not Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert or Steffi Graf — has lasted longer at the top or won more. And nobody, absolutely nobody, in any sport, has ever fought from a place deeper in their gut. “You know, this is what I do best,” she said to the crowd after knocking off Kontaveit, 7-6 (7-4), 2-6, 6-2, on Wednesday night.
Among the many things that separate Williams is that she’s doing this as a tired working mother with a lot of things on that magnificent mind of hers. Don’t for a second underestimate that achievement, the difficulty of finding her strokes again with so many different claims on her. Coming into the tournament, she had played just four matches in 14 months and lost three of them. When she announced in a first-person piece in Vogue that she would be moving away from the sport and toward growing her family and her venture capital company, you couldn’t help but notice the resigned tone of it.
Williams refused to use of the word “retirement.” She favored “evolving.” Despite the verbal evasion, there was no question that she came to New York viewing it as the definitive end of her singles career. Anyone who followed her remarks closely knew that. After suffering a first-round loss at Wimbledon to Harmony Tan, she said: “Today was what I could do. At some point, you have to be okay with that.”
Her style of play, all thrust and pummeling attack, has taken an enormous toll on her body over the years — and she has been playing in the wake of a Caesarean section and two pulmonary embolisms. Name any athlete, in any endeavor, in any era, please, who could have remained such a factor while dealing with postpartum issues, breastfeeding and raising a toddler — and who could return after taking months at a time away from the game, only to be viably great again, with a fidgeting 4-year-old in the eaves of the stadium, who she reclaimed on her hip as soon as she walked back to the locker room after beating Kontaveit.
Three weeks ago at a tournament in Toronto, she had struggled to finally win something, anything, even if it was two brief sets over a player outside of the top 50, Nuria Parrizas Diaz. “Listen, I was happy to win a match. It’s been so long,” she said, “I forgot what it felt like.”
Williams acknowledged, “I’m not where I normally am, and I’m not where I want to be.”
“I guess there’s just a light at the end of the tunnel,” she added. “I don’t know, I guess I’m closer to the light, so . . . lately that’s been it for me. I can’t wait to get to that light.”
Asked what the light represents, she answered, “Freedom.”
But she also clung to the possibility that something might turn over inside her when she got to New York, that she could ignite some last fumes and feel a little greatness again on the big stage.
Well, she has started to feel it — and now everyone can feel it building. In her first two matches, she has played with a kind of poised, open curiosity, as if she’s wondering as much as we are just how much she might be able to summon. Each stroke Wednesday night seemed a little harder until, by the end of the match, she was delivering hammers and anvils. All told, Williams hit 38 winners to Kontaveit’s 32. The Estonian had 15 winners in the second set alone, which might have demoralized Williams, along with the fact that a slugfest of a match was passing the two-hour mark. But instead of fading, Williams somehow surged.
“I was just like: ‘Serena, you’ve already won. Just play. Be Serena,” she said after the win. “ ‘You’re better than this.’ That’s what I was able to do.”
Kontaveit was deceptively slight and pale in yellow, but she had huge strokes that might have driven Williams off the court. Instead, by the final game, Williams was charging so hard that she took huge swinging volleys out of the air — shots that seemed to dynamite the crowd and all of the assumptions about what she has left.
“You know, I can’t do this forever,” she said just three weeks ago.
Maybe not. But she can do it for another night.