Somehow, some way she got stronger. And then stronger again. Faster and then faster again. Better and bolder and as big as the moment.
The longer it went, the more she seemed to believe, seemed to say, yes, retirement is coming, but not today, not tonight.
None of it made any sense.
Maybe none of it ever did with Serena Williams.
Via an intense, emotional, improbable performance Wednesday, Serena Williams defeated Anett Kontaveit 7-6 (7-4), 2-6, 6-2 to advance to the third round of the U.S. Open, which she has said will be the final competitive tournament of her legendary career.
It was a vintage effort, a throwback to the days when she dominated this sport and grew into a global icon for both her on-court strength and off-court style.
It sets her up for a possible run deep into this tournament, which was once expected to be little more than a chance to get her flowers (and an Oprah-narrated tribute video) and give the fans a final twirl.
Instead, well, here she is, here she comes.
She turns 41 in late September. Her daughter turns 5 on Thursday. This was just her sixth match of the entire year. Yes, she won in the opening round on Monday, but that was an uneven performance, nothing that portended that some long run was capable here.
Now she was facing Kontaveit, the second seed of the tournament, the second-ranked player in the world, some 14 years her junior. Kontaveit wasn’t here for some curtain call. She was here to win it all.
So too, now, maybe is Serena.
“There’s still a little left in me,” Williams said. “We’ll see.”
She battled through a back-and-forth first set, complete with 20-point games and multiple breaks to win in a tie breaker. It felt fragile. It felt tenuous. Instead Williams got tough, outlasting a tie breaker and setting off a grandstand celebration that rivaled any championship round.
Kontaveit roared back in the second in dominating fashion though, silencing the pro-Serena crowd and leaving everyone wondering if this would end in a whimper. She was too good. Too young. Too in her prime.
Serena didn’t enter this sport quietly, though. She first won here in 1999, at age 17, with beads in her hair and the world at her feet. She didn’t look the part. She didn’t act the part. She just changed the part.
Well, 23 years and 23 major titles later, she isn’t going to go out any differently, still delivering blistering aces and primal celebratory roars and everything on unapologetically her terms.
It was all there on Wednesday.
The fight. The ferocity. The forehands.
The third set Serena dug deep, finding a reserve of resolve that maybe no one else saw coming. Expected to fade, she broke Kontaveit, took control of the set and eventually put her younger, fresher opponent away. It was as epic of a performance as she’s ever had.
Does Serena have what it takes to win this? What about a Jimmy Connors-esque run to the semifinals? It’s hard to say. Up next is unseeded Alja Tomljanovic, 29, on Friday evening. Her side of the bracket is wide open now, with no seeded player between her and the quarterfinals. And Serena certainly looked better and moved smoother than she did Monday.
Stamina is still a question, though. Age, too. And Serena will begin the doubles tournament Thursday with older sister Venus.
Still, everything else is there. The shot making. The recoveries. The rising to the moment. To say she will have the fans behind her is an understatement.
“I'm looking at it as a bonus, I don’t have anything to prove,” Serena said. “I don’t have anything to win. I don’t have anything to lose. I haven’t played like this since 1998. I’m enjoying it.”
This is Serena’s tournament, the one she always dreamed of winning while learning the game at a public park on a Compton street corner.
That was the impossible dream. When you’ve managed that, then what is this? What is one more run of magic?