The lights went down, a long pause ensued, and out of the tunnel emerged the champion everyone had been waiting for. Serena Williams, dressed in a flowing, sparkling robe, walked out to ear-shattering applause as her daughter, Olympia, joined thousands of fans pointing cameras at her mom in the middle of Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Williams, despite the shattering noise, maintained her focus as she walked purposefully to her seat and began preparing for the spectacle ahead — the first match in what is expected to be Williams’s last U.S. Open.
The night carried the same kind of electric feel as so many other highly anticipated and buzzworthy tennis events before it, from Billie Jean King’s grudge match with Bobby Riggs to Pete Sampras’s U.S. Open final against Andre Agassi.
A host of celebrities — including a former president of the United States, a one-time heavyweight boxing champion of the world and many former tennis greats, like King and Martina Navratilova — watched along with thousands of tennis fans inside the stadium and out, all hoping Williams would win the match and continue playing.
Bill Clinton sat next to Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Mike Tyson sat alongside Navratilova. Gladys Knight was there, Queen Latifah read a poem in homage of Williams, and Spike Lee helped conduct the pregame coin toss. Oprah Winfrey narrated a video played for Williams after her victory.
Serena Williams’s Farewell to Tennis
The U.S. Open could be the tennis star’s last professional tournament after a long career of breaking boundaries and obliterating expectations.
- Decades of Greatness: Over 27 years, Serena Williams dominated generation after generation of opponents and changed the way women’s tennis is played, winning 23 Grand Slam singles titles and cementing her reputation as the queen of comebacks.
- An Enduring Influence: From former and current players’ memories of a young Williams to the new fans she drew to tennis, Williams left a lasting impression.
- Her Fashion: Since she turned professional in 1995, Williams has used her clothes as a statement of self and a weapon of change.
She certainly did her part, too, overcoming some early nerves to defeat Danka Kovinic of Montenegro, 6-3, 6-3, under the lights to reach the second round. That means it all happens again on Wednesday against No. 2 Anett Kontaveit from Estonia.
On Monday, Williams looked far better than she had in previous matches this summer and seemed energized by the moment. After the match, a ceremony was held to honor Williams, an unusual departure for a first-round match.
Williams announced earlier this month that she intends to retire from tennis, but as King said during the ceremony, “You are just beginning.”
While inside the stadium the two players hammered balls from the baseline in front of a nervous but expectant crowd, the grounds outside the arena walls were crowded with an overflow audience of folks unable to find tickets to get in.
Instead, they watched on the big video screen overlooking the fountains in the main plaza, and cheered along with the 25,000 on the inside, as long as they could see the images from where they stood.
“The screen needs to be bigger,” said Zandra Bucheli, an architect from San Francisco. Her brother, Jorge Hernandez, from Long Beach, N.Y. — and an architect, as well — said that despite not getting inside the stadium, his family members were still enjoying the scene in the plaza.
“It’s just over the wall,” he said. “And the atmosphere out here is good. You get a feel for it.”
The Gray family, from Bowie, Md., drove four hours to watch Monday’s matches and planned to drive back home after it was all over.
“I’m extremely excited,” said Anita Gray, whose two sons, Cody, 12, and Coy, 14, play competitive tennis and train at the Tennis Center in College Park, where Frances Tiafoe first honed his game. The boys’ father, Rory V. Gray, has been coming to the U.S. Open since 1993 and said he would watch Serena Williams and her sister Venus working out on the back courts at the National Tennis Center with their father, Richard Williams. They were both schoolgirls at the time, and virtually no one else was there watching with him.
It was a far different scene on Monday when Williams practiced before the night match. Hundreds of fans waited patiently for Williams to appear at about 6:15 p.m. for a half-hour warm up. As soon as she emerged into view, the fans began to scream and cheer while a dozen cameras followed Williams to the door of the courts.
When her practice session ended, the fans applauded again, and Williams lifted her racket to acknowledge their cheers as she walked off with Rennae Stubbs, her coach. Not long after, she was making her grand entrance into Ashe Stadium.
“I don’t know if she can win it all,” said Shayla Veasley, a certified athletic trainer from Harlem. “But I’m hoping for at least a run to the semis. We just want to see more of her.”
Menuarn Burns, 74, a retiree from Shreveport, La., said she felt lucky to have tickets for the match, which she had been anticipating for days. She admires and respects Williams, but she said she would not be sad when the great champion is finally gone from the tennis tour.
“Everyone has to grow old,” she said. “She’s earned a chance to move on to something else.”