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Serena Williams’s Next Opponent Is a Struggling Anett Kontaveit

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At nearly 41 years of age, Serena Williams would appear to have seen all of it in tennis, but the brand new experiences keep coming in what she has suggested — but coyly not quite confirmed — might be her final tournament.

Since returning to the tour in June after nearly a yr’s absence, she has played five singles matches: 4 of them against opponents she had never faced.

More novelty lies ahead on Wednesday night within the second round of the U.S. Open when she’s going to play her first profession match against Anett Kontaveit, the No. 2 seed.

They are going to face off in a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium, a venue that seems like home to Williams even when it has not at all times been a haven.

Kontaveit, a 26-year-old Estonian whose international profile will not be nearly as high as her rating, has surely never experienced anything quite like what awaits her on Wednesday. But she sounds more excited than daunted.

“I’m going to fight as hard as I can for each point and really benefit from the atmosphere of being on the market against the best player of all time,” she said. “I feel it’s such an amazing opportunity.”

Kontaveit is the highest-ranked player in history from Estonia, the northernmost of the three Baltic States. But she will not be Estonia’s first elite women’s singles player. Kaia Kanepi, 37, reached her first Grand Slam singles quarterfinal in 2008 on the French Open and has been to 6 more, most recently, in an enormous surprise, at this yr’s Australian Open.

Kontaveit, a ferocious ball-striker with a robust serve, has made it to just one Grand Slam quarterfinal at this stage, which helps explain her relative anonymity. But she did break latest ground for Estonia by reaching the championship match of last yr’s WTA Finals, the tour’s prestigious year-end event, losing to Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain.

That run boosted Kontaveit’s rating, but her best results have are available lower-tier events and sometimes indoors: no surprise considering Estonia’s long winters. Though she has often trained in Britain and was once described by the country’s Day by day Telegraph as “an honorary Briton with a cut-glass” English accent (presumably a compliment), she still lives in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, in a chic modern apartment that she has decorated with plants and a few of her own handmade pottery.

“She does get recognized on the street, and she or he has lots of fans in Estonia needless to say,” said Torben Beltz, the veteran German coach who joined her team in June before Wimbledon.

Kontaveit, a prodigy who won the Estonian women’s singles title at age 13, received instruction from her mother Ülle Milk in her childhood. But she has had a series of outstanding international coaches on tour: working with the Dutchman Glenn Schaap; the Briton Nigel Sears; and Dmitry Tursunov, a straight-talking and deep-thinking former tour player from Russia who was instrumental in Aryna Sabalenka’s rise into the highest three after which Kontaveit’s.

But Tursunov and Kontaveit ended their partnership this spring. Kontaveit attributed the split to Tursunov’s Russian nationality making it complicated for him to secure visas and travel together with her consistently on tour after the nation’s invasion of Ukraine, but that didn’t keep Tursunov from being quickly rehired for a trial run by Emma Raducanu, the 19-year-old British star.

Though Kontaveit reached the ultimate of the Qatar Open in February, this has been a trying season. She said she contracted Covid-19 in late April and withdrew from the Madrid Open and said she struggled physically when she returned to the tour.

“Everyone knows she had long Covid sort of,” Beltz said. “She was not fit, but she’s very close again to get this back and is playing higher in practice very well now. So I feel it’s coming.”

This might be Kontaveit’s first match with Williams but not the primary match Beltz will coach against Williams. He previously worked with Angelique Kerber when she faced Williams in a series of major matches, including the 2016 Australian Open final that Kerber won and the 2016 Wimbledon final that Kerber lost.

“I’ve been scouting her for a very long time,” Beltz said with amusing. “Every tournament while you play good you will have to scout Serena, because you recognize your player can have to face her. However it’s great to face a champion, I feel. It’s going to be a very good match tomorrow.”

Beltz scouted Williams this time from afar by watching on television when she defeated Danka Kovinic of Montenegro on Monday night in a unprecedented atmosphere at Ashe Stadium.

“I couldn’t get a ticket,” Beltz said. “That is the largest thing I’ve ever seen in women’s tennis. I feel it’s the best thing for the game, and all of us need to thank Serena for all she did. Especially without delay with the tip coming.”

Though Williams has struggled since her return to the tour in June, winning just two of her five singles matches, Beltz could see progress against Kovinic.

“I feel her ball speed, serve and return is de facto as much as her prime time,” Beltz said of Williams. “I saw her other matches, and it looks like she’s improved over the past couple of weeks. She looks in higher shape and appears good now. For Anett, I feel the hot button is to only exit and take a look at to play her best tennis but additionally benefit from the moment. It’s going to be an enormous challenge, an amazing challenge, but I feel she wants that challenge and needs to embrace it.”

Remarkably, she may get to embrace the challenge twice in Williams’s farewell U.S. Open. Kontaveit and Shelby Rogers, her American partner, could also face Williams and her sister Venus within the second round of the ladies’s doubles tournament.

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