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Serena Williams at the US Open is the best show in the world

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And so it goes. There are Tony Award winners on Broadway and Harry Styles playing at Madison Square Gardens, but the best ticket in New York right now is to see a 40-year-old woman trying not to quit tennis.

Scratch that. There is no better show on the planet than the current one with Serena Williams at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Emotion, drama, fireworks, a supporting cast of famous names this is an unmissable goodbye, made all the more spectacular by the fact that it could end at any moment. It is a pompous act, without a net. Any show can be the last. On any given night, the greatest tennis player of all time could bring down the curtain on her singles career forever.

She insists she’s not retiring, evolving away from tennis – but it’s what she might evolve before she goes that keeps the crowd on the edge of their seats. A 24-time Grand Slam winner? Who knows? After last night, no one wants to say for sure where this journey will end.

The best ticket in New York right now is to watch Serena Williams dodge his retirement

The tennis topper can drop the curtain on her singles career at any time

The tennis topper can drop the curtain on her singles career at any time

The American icon defeated Anett Kontaveit and set up a third-round clash against Alja Tomljanovic

The American icon defeated Anett Kontaveit and set up a third-round clash against Alja Tomljanovic

Golfing great Tiger Woods (right) was among those who came to pay tribute on Wednesday

Golfing great Tiger Woods (right) was among those who came to pay tribute on Wednesday

It ends, we know, because Williams has said this is her farewell tournament and there are no signs of that intention being reversed.

But with runner-up Anett Kontaveit played out and sent over three sets and 147 extraordinary minutes, no one is convinced they’re watching a cameo. Least of the rest of the field.

On Monday, they saw Williams overcome a weaker opponent and possibly shrug. Many felt that the sheer emotional pull of the occasion would endure such a great champion.

Williams defeated and sent the second seed in three sets and 147 minutes

Williams defeated and sent the second seed in three sets and 147 minutes

But this? No one beats the second seed because a bunch of strangers cheer and want it to happen.

When Kontaveit Williams broke into three consecutive service games to take the second set 6-2, order seemed to have been restored. No matter what she is and what she’s been, a player of Williams’ advanced years who has played five games in 14 months to here can only get so far on the love of the common people.

That made her third set so exceptional. She looked into the eyes of the prospect of that evolution square and decided: not tonight.

She broke, and broke again, racing to a 4-1 lead and finishing the game, 6-2 with an unstoppable return that sailed back across the net with such certainty that the entire arena was on its feet before it landed. “This is her moment,” Kontaveit mused later. “This is all about her, and I’m well aware of that.”

The Estonian later mused that she knew full well that the night was all about Williams

The Estonian later mused that she knew full well that the night was all about Williams

She referred to the montage told by Queen Latifah that Williams welcomes on the field before every game. Her opponent comes in first and sits there as a spare as Williams’ achievements and importance are detailed by one of the most famous voices in American broadcasting.

Then enter the queen. All jet black and jewels, the obvious main attraction. Meanwhile, the public is more excited for a prize fight than for a tennis match. If it’s not exactly a bear pit, it’s certainly not what the competitors of the WTA circuit are used to.

Later, an observer who saw the glass clearly half-full asked Kontaveit if she’d noticed that when she won two good points in a row, the crowd cheered her, so they were very balanced in their support. Kontaveit said, no, she hadn’t really noticed that at all. She agreed more with another questioner who described the mood as brash.

 

And you know who’s also cheeky? The GOAT, out of control. On the field, after the game, Williams was reminded that she had just removed the second seed and asked what she thought of it.

Her response was to laugh and fixate the camera with the look that Bugs Bunny used to watch when he pulled a stunt of colossal mischief. “I know,” it seemed to say. ‘Am I not a stinker?’ No, seriously, how do you do that? Suddenly, Serena’s gaze grew hesitant. “Well, I was quite a good player…”

Williams entered the court for video montage in black and crystal - clearly the main attraction

Williams entered the court for video montage in black and crystal – clearly the main attraction

Williams fixed the camera with a naughty one when asked about taking out the number 2 seed

Williams fixed the camera with a naughty one when asked about taking out the number 2 seed

Under the circumstances, that past tense seemed overly modest. There is nothing about Williams in this tournament that seems historic.

Kontaveit didn’t say she would win it, but she didn’t say she couldn’t either. Williams says this is the freest she’s played since 1998, and anyone who gets in her way should be concerned.

This is truly the GOAT untethered. Williams won her first Grand Slam, the US Open, in 1999 and has had a target on her back ever since. A big, red cross, she called it. Now, that’s gone. She’s had her career. She’s done. This is fun, this feels like freedom, like it did in 1998 before she was the one to be beaten. This is Serena on bonus time.

“Nothing to lose, nothing to prove,” she trembled. “I feel like I’ve already won, just out there. I look back – it’s pretty awesome what I’ve done. Now I can just be Serena.”

Ajla Tomljanovic is her next opponent and she previously expressed a desire to play against Williams before retiring.

No doubt many players did when they thought they would take on some Hall of Fame exhibit conceding sets 6-0 to Emma Raducanu in her twilight.

Her next opponent Ajla Tomljanovic previously expressed the desire to play with the big one

Her next opponent Ajla Tomljanovic previously expressed the desire to play with the big one

Maybe Tomljanovic feels different now that old Serena has poked her head through the curtain. “I’m just glad I showed up because the last few times I haven’t,” she said.

And that’s true. It may have hastened Williams’ retirement that her most recent outings have been bad. She said she was happy with her practice sessions, but it didn’t translate into competition performance. And now it is.

What a sight that remains. The pure attack of those hits from the baseline, yet the grace hidden in all that power. And the determination. She took a toilet break for the third set and returned with new energy.

She denied splashing water on her face, like Novak Djokovic, or giving a pep talk to the women in the mirror. “I just, uh, got lighter,” she said, confirming what Andy Murray revealed this week was an earthy sense of humor.

Yet she has that in her, that shifting, that shaking of the reins. As a guest in her box was Tiger Woods, another amazing competitor and outlier, who she says helped her make the decision to compete again.

“It didn’t come together,” Williams admitted. ‘I thought, ‘This isn’t me.’ I had so many questions, I didn’t know what to do. He’s one of the main reasons I’m still playing.”

At the end, Woods stood up to greet his friend, both arms in the air, as if holding barbells. You could still see his muscles bulging.

Williams had her signature ballerina twirling, one arm up in front of the crowd; but when she stopped spinning, you could see the other arm, next to her, holding its clenched fist. This is a great show.

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