It was a performance that had Tiger Woods on his feet and pumping his fist – a sight usually witnessed on the 18th hole of a golf course, rather than the stands of Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Serena Williams progressed to the third round of the US Open in what could be the final singles tournament of her career, beating Estonian second seed Anett Kontaveit 7-6 2-6 6-2 on Wednesday evening.
Williams was buoyed and cheered on every point by the packed home crowd. That included Woods, who watched the drama unfold with his partner, Erica Herman, from Williams’ player’s box.
“It was a privilege to watch greatness. Congrats @serenawilliams,” the 15-time major champion tweeted after the match.
Later, Williams paid tribute to Woods and his influence over the later stages of her tennis career.
“He’s one of the reasons I’m here, one of the main reasons I’m still playing,” she told reporters. “We talked a lot. He was really trying to get me motivated. There are a few people, but we were like: ‘OK, we can do this together, you know?’”
Woods wasn’t the only sporting great to offer words of encouragement. “Not done yet @serenawilliams,” tweeted Steph Curry, while fellow NBA star Chris Paul said he’s “never seen anything like what Serena Williams is doing … I’m a fan and enjoying every minute.”
Having announced last month that she will “evolve away from tennis” after this year’s US Open, Williams’ farewell to tennis has clearly captured the imagination of the wider sporting world and beyond.
“Thank you @SerenaWilliams for inspiring people around the world with your talent, grace, and determination both on and off the court,” tweeted Vice President Kamala Harris. “We celebrate all that you have been, all that you are, and all that is to come.”
Williams, bidding to win her 24th grand slam singles title, will face Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic on Friday in what will be her first third-round match at a grand slam since last year’s French Open.
And despite her time away from the game over the past 12 months, the 40-year-old showed on Wednesday that she still has what it takes to beat top players in the world. According to ESPN, Williams has now won 23 of her last 25 matches against players ranked inside the top two – a run that stretches back to 2007.
“I’m playing pretty good,” she said. “I’ve been practicing really well, but it hasn’t been coming together in matches.
“But, you know, now it’s kind of coming together, I guess. I mean, I had to bring it together today. It worked out.”
Asked after the match if she could win the tournament, Williams said she “cannot think that far.” It would be her first grand slam title since the 2017 Australian Open and tie her with Margaret Court’s all-time singles record.
The boisterous crowds at Arthur Ashe Stadium have shown they’re prepared to will Williams in that direction over the course of her first two matches – an added challenge for anyone facing her.
In Williams’ opening match against Danka Kovinić on Monday, 29,402 fans were in attendance – a record for an evening session on the US Open’s main show court.
“You can expect something, I saw it from the previous match,” Kontaveit told reporters about the partisan atmosphere. “But when you’re on the court, I mean, it was hard … It was something I never experienced before.”
It remains unclear whether this will be the final tournament of Williams’ career.
She is also competing in the doubles competition alongside her sister Venus, and on Thursday, they play their opening match against Czech pair Linda Nosková and Lucie Hradecká.
With another packed crowd expected, Williams is partly savoring the opportunity to play in New York one more time and partly thinking about the task at hand.
“I think these moments are clearly fleeting,” she said. “For me, it’s really about having a little embrace (of the occasion) but also understanding that I’m here to focus and do the best that I can this time.”