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Watching in the stands or on television, Serena Williams has dazzled in the U.S. Open

USA's Serena Williams celebrates her win against Estonia's Anett Kontaveit during their 2022 US Open Tennis tournament women's singles second round match at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York, on August 31, 2022.
Corey Sipkin
/
AFP via Getty Images
USA's Serena Williams celebrates her win against Estonia's Anett Kontaveit during their 2022 US Open Tennis tournament women's singles second round match at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York, on August 31, 2022.

NEW YORK — As the first week of the U.S. Open Championships draws to a close, the tennis world, in fact the sports world, is enthralled with Serena Williams like never before in her 20-plus years of dominance.

Why? Because she's turning a moment that was supposed to be about her legacy, into a moment about her tennis.

She set the stage for this special Open by writing last month that likely it would be her last. New York responded as only New York could, feting her with video tributes by Queen Latifah and Oprah Winfrey. The big screens around Arthur Ashe stadium projected a steady stream of famous faces who came to pay their respects. And, admit it famous faces, to be seen, right?

The biggest to-do happened the night of Williams' first round match against Danka Kovinic of Montenegro – of course it was respectful to get in all the messages of "we love you, you're the GOAT Serena" on the tournament's first night. But truth be told, the way Williams had been playing since she returned from a year-long injury absence, there was a chance she might not be around long enough to receive all the love.

But then she beat Kovinic in straight sets. Two nights later, the tributes were there again, albeit toned down, while Williams' game continued to rev up. She beat number-two seed Anett Kontaveit in three sets. And suddenly, the evolution (Williams' preferred word) from legacy to tennis, was in full swing. Questions of "is this in fact your last tournament?" became "can you win this tournament?"

After the Kontaveit win, Williams said she's tried to navigate both realities.

"I think I've mostly been kind of blocking everything out," she said, "but then at the same time I've been embracing a little bit of it [because] I also want to enjoy the moment. I think these moments are clearly fleeting so for me it's really about having a little embrace but also understanding that I'm here to focus, and do the best that I can this time."

For those of us in the stadium seats for both matches, it's been almost disorienting watching the video screen of Williams highlights, and then seeing her nearly 41-year-old self play with the same power and nuance and athleticism. And with each rocket serve or thunderclap return against Kovinic and Kontaveit, the adoration has been unanimous – strangers high-fiving a Williams winner or an ace, people hugging and standing in celebration. And roaring. Always roaring.

For an opponent, it's all been a bit overwhelming.

"I mean I expected it," Kontaveit said after the match, "but it was really hard. You can expect something and I saw it from [Williams' previous match], but when you're on the court, it was hard. I knew it was coming, but yeah, I guess you can't learn from anyone else's mistakes. Feeling it was just, something I never experienced before."

Kontaveit left the press conference in tears.

Today, Australian Ajla Tomljanovic plays the role of "next?" in what fans are starting to say is another, and probably final Williams run to glory. If, like the others, Tomljanovic goes down, don't be surprised to hear murmurs of Jimmy Connors' memorable 1991 U.S. Open, when at 39 and apparently "over the hill" he went on a fist-pumping tear and got to the semifinals.

Williams says in the run-up to this Open she'd been practicing really well and now it's satisfying to turn that into solid play during matches. Can she win it all?

"I cannot think that far [ahead]," she said. "I'm having fun and I'm enjoying it. Honestly I've had so many tough matches the last, I don't know how long, that I just feel like, just being prepared for everyone that I play is just going to be really, really difficult and...get through those moments."

Even if one of those moments ends in defeat, Williams already can claim a victory of sorts – in a week's time, she has turned her tournament run from a loving farewell, into a passionate guessing game of how long will she stick around.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.