Since Serena Williams returned to the sport at Wimbledon, fans of the 23-time Grand Slam champ have looked for signs of her old self; signs that the world-beating game of the last 20 years was still available to be tapped, even at nearly 41.

There hadn’t been many of those signs, to be honest. Definitely not in her last match, a 6-4, 6-0 loss to Emma Raducanu in Cincinnati that sent Serena practically sprinting out of the stadium when it was over. The same was largely true through the first five games against 80th-ranked Danka Kovinic at the US Open on Monday night. Serena looked uncertain out of the gate, double faulting twice in the opening game, and double faulting again when she was broken at 2-2.

But within that early time frame, there was one moment that should have offered Serena’s fans a glimmer of hope. In the second game, Kovinic hit a good drop shot that looked as if would bounce twice well before Serena made it there. But it didn’t. Serena caught up with it in plenty of time and finished the point with a swing-volley winner. We knew then that however rusty she still might be, her physical skills were intact.

Serena would eventually shake off some of that rust, but first she needed a little help. Serving at 3-2, Kovinic reached game point; Serena mishit a backhand return that wobbled in the air and somehow fell right in the corner of the court, grazing two lines at once. Kovinic couldn’t believe it, even after asking for a replay. She still might not believe it, because after that she never really threatened Serena. Kovinic hadn’t won a match since Roland Garros, and it showed.

Fans inside Ashe sent Serena off with this message following an on-court ceremony.

Fans inside Ashe sent Serena off with this message following an on-court ceremony.


While Kovinic declined, Serena improved, and the throwback moments grew more frequent. She saved break points with curling aces down the T. She knocked off high volley winners. Best of all, her timing clicked in on her backhand side. She reflexed back return winners from that side, and brought the crowd to its feet when she rifled a down-the-line backhand winner and threw her arm in the air to punctuate it. There were long games, and the match was somewhat closer than its 6-3, 6-3 scoreline, but Serena earned her high-stepping victory dance.

“I think when I walked out, the reception was really overwhelming,” she said. “It was loud and I could feel it in my chest. It was a really good feeling. At the same time I’m also thinking, I still have a match to play and I want to be able to play up to this reception almost.”

As the match went on, though, Serena used the positive energy to settle herself down.

“I feel so comfortable on this court,” she said. “I was really calm, ‘Yes, I got this.’”

Will she be as calm against her next opponent, No. 2 seed Anett Kontaveit, who is ranked 78 spots higher than Kovinic? They’ve never played before. Kontaveit won’t hit Serena off the court, but she’ll surely be more consistent than Kovinic was tonight.

“It’s good that I was able to get this under my belt,” Serena said. “I don’t know, I’m just not even thinking about [the next match]. I’m just thinking about just this moment. I think it’s good for me just to live in the moment now.”

By the later stages on Monday, Serena had started to remind us of what it had been like to watch so many of her one-sided first-round wins here in the past. She blew through love holds, and sent her opponent’s biggest ground strokes harder than they came in. If her timing is right, and the fans are there for her again—which they will be—it’s going to take a special effort to beat her.