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‘I’m Just Serena,’ Swinging Freely for One other Grand Slam Run

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Serena Williams is sort of 41. She didn’t play competitive tennis for nearly a 12 months, and it showed — truly it showed — at Wimbledon, in Toronto and in Mason, Ohio, the three tournaments where she made painfully transient appearances this summer before arriving in Recent York for her farewell U.S. Open.

She looked slow to react and slow on the run. She looked rusty, mistiming returns off second serves that she would once have punished.

But that’s all irrelevant now. Williams is relaunched, as she made clear by defeating Anett Kontaveit, the No. 2 player on the earth, on Wednesday night.

Williams is into the third round of what may be very likely her final tournament: convincingly replaying her best hits — big-point aces, swing-volley winners, full-cut groundstrokes on the move — and quickly giving first-time opponents like Danka Kovinic and Kontaveit a real taste of what it’s prefer to face the actual Serena.

Along with her 7-6 (4), 2-6, 6-2 victory over Kontaveit complete, Williams was asked on court by the ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez, “Are you surprising yourself together with your level in the intervening time?”

Williams checked out her for a bit while and chuckled.

It was essentially the most telling answer of the evening, and no actual words were required even when Williams did tack on just a few when the chuckling was done: “I’m just Serena you realize,” she said.

“She’s not coming here to be surprised by winning, otherwise she wouldn’t be here,” said her coach Eric Hechtman.

This will not be bravado. That is hard-earned confidence. The type that comes with being raised by parents who made it clear that greatness lay ahead if the proper selections and sacrifices were made. The type that comes from measuring yourself against an uber-talented big sister named Venus from the moment you may pick up a racket on a court filled with cracks in Compton, Calif. The type that comes from winning 23 Grand Slam singles titles across nearly twenty years against rivals from multiple tennis generations and despite all manner of setbacks, each skilled and private.

Williams has good reason to consider that she will rise above, even within the twilight, because she has done it so often.

The U.S. Open might be the tennis star’s last skilled tournament after an extended profession of breaking boundaries and obliterating expectations.

“I might never, ever count Serena Williams out, and in case you do, that may be your biggest mistake,” said Kathy Rinaldi, the captain of the USA’ Billie Jean King Cup team, who was watching on Wednesday.

In the event you do count her out, as Williams has explained before, you might be only going to assist her.

“Because she’s going to make use of that to prove you unsuitable,” Rinaldi said. “But she’s really having fun with this one. You’ll be able to clearly see. It’s got to be really tough for her opponents: to face her and face the group.”

It has been quite a team effort to this point: Williams rolling back the years and five tiers of stands packed to the roof in Arthur Ashe Stadium with fans wholly committed, perhaps for the primary time, to showing Williams nothing but love in a venue where she has generated ambivalence previously along with her outbursts and, at other times, along with her dominance as she racked up six U.S. Open singles titles and made long runs at No. 1.

But with Williams preparing, in her words, to “evolve away from tennis,” the U.S. Open crowd seems to have considered her body of labor, enduring excellence and manifest love of the sport and the battle, and decided to go all in.

“There’s no rush here,” Williams said with a smile, alluding to her impending evolution. “I’m loving this crowd. Oh, my goodness, it’s really implausible. There’s still a bit left in me. We’ll see.”

Watching her lose, 6-4, 6-0, last month to Emma Raducanu in the primary round of the Western & Southern Open in Ohio with tape on her left leg, it did seem reasonable to consider she may not give you the option to drag her game together in time.

“She was a bit banged up in Cincy,” Hechtman said. “She’s a lot better now and after all the group helps loads, absolutely. At the tip of the day, you play that a few years and that many tournaments and win that many titles, you wish the large stage to get you up for it.”

There have been more standing ovations than at a national political convention, myriad shouts of support and, less sportingly but probably unavoidably, loads of cheers for the opposition’s errors, including their missed serves.

The newest capability crowd on Wednesday night even booed a machine: disagreeing with the electronic line-calling system when considered one of Kontaveit’s winners was shown to have landed on the intense outside fringe of the sideline.

Within the second set, Kontaveit won top-of-the-line points of the tournament — a spectacular, scrambling effort punctuated with a backhand winner — and was greeted with a golf clap.

It is going to not get easier for Williams’s rivals. Ajla Tomljanovic, the tall and unseeded Australian who will face Williams within the third round on Friday night, was playing on Court 7 on Wednesday as Williams and Kontaveit dueled within the important stadium.

“I used to be hearing the group and it like scared me, although I used to be playing on a distinct court,” Tomljanovic said. “So I’m going to must get my earplugs.”

Tomljanovic said before even seeing the draw she had a vision that she would face Williams in Recent York and was only hoping that it was not going to be in the primary round.

So it has turned out, and Tomljanovic, like nearly all of Williams’s opponents on this latest comeback, has never played her before. Like Kontaveit, she wants the experience to make her profession feel complete but will not be sure how she is going to handle the moment (Kontaveit ended up in tears at her news conference).

“I do that trick where I feel like the group is cheering for me as well,” she said. “I heard Novak Djokovic say that after about doing that in his matches. It’s a great one. It’s all about tricking your mind really, because you possibly can’t control what the group does.”

The British chair umpire, Alison Hughes, tried her best on Wednesday night and ended up saying “please” an important deal greater than she succeeded in truly quieting the din.

It’s a moment that spurs thoughts of U.S. Opens past, particularly of Jimmy Connors’s rip-roaring run to the semifinals in 1991 as he was celebrating upset victories and his thirty ninth birthday.

“I just feel like I actually have had an enormous red X on my back since I won the U.S. Open in ’99,” Williams said. “It’s been there my entire profession, because I won my first Grand Slam early in my profession. But here it’s different. I feel like I’ve already won, figuratively, mentally.”

A record-tying twenty fourth Grand Slam singles title still seems an unreasonable notion to lots of us outsiders. She is 40, in any case, and in addition playing doubles with Venus starting Thursday night, which could put extra strain on her injury-prone frame.

Her ex-coach Patrick Mouratoglou counseled against doubles during majors and was proved correct in 2018 when in her first major after getting back from childbirth she played each events within the French Open and needed to exit the singles draw with an injury.

She and Venus haven’t played doubles at a serious again until now, however it is comprehensible that they need this full-circle moment, and Hechtman said the plan is solely to eliminate a full rehearsal on the times Serena plays doubles.

But her singles draw definitely gets one fascinated about the potential for a deeper run. There are not any Grand Slam singles champions left in Serena’s quarter of the draw and just one left in her half: the unseeded Canadian Bianca Andreescu, who beat Williams within the 2019 U.S. Open final.

But going all the best way surely doesn’t seem preposterous to Team Serena, and when Hechtman was asked very late on Wednesday night in regards to the Connors precedent, he mulled it over and said he was leaning toward a distinct U.S. Open swan song: Pete Sampras, who won the 2002 men’s title in what turned out to be his final tournament.

Dream on, Recent York, and because the Williams family would surely endorse, dream big.

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