How far can Serena Williams go at the U.S. Open?

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When 40-year-old Serena Williams beat second-seeded Anett Kontaveit in the second round of the U.S. Open last night, the collective thought started to creep in: can she really do this?

In her post-match on-court interview, Williams was asked if she was surprised at her level of play.

She smirked — as though she would ever be surprised about winning a tennis match. “I’m just Serena,” she said. Read more about her victory here.

Williams announced earlier this month that she’d be “evolving away from tennis,” and that this U.S. Open would be her last as she focuses on growing her family and her businesses.

Clearly, there’s at least one person who believes she can complete the storybook ending. Here’s why she may not be wrong:

The crowd is on her side. Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., is the biggest tennis venue in the world. Its listed capacity is 23,771, but the announced attendance for last night’s Williams-Kontaveit showdown was 29,959 — a record for a U.S. Open night session. And at least on TV, it seemed like the overwhelming majority of them were rooting hard for Williams. Celebrities have come out in droves to watch Williams’ swan song (Mike Tyson and Martina Navratilova sitting together is like athlete MadLibs), but only Tiger Woods was granted a spot in Williams’ box, with the two fist pumping toward each other throughout the match. Woods’ 2019 Masters win, though he didn’t retire afterward, may be the closest recent comparable if Williams pulls this off. The strong Serena support can also get in her opponents’ heads. “This is totally about her and I was very aware of that,” Kontaveit said.

WATCH | Williams upsets No. 2 Kontaveit at U.S. Open:

Serena Williams postpones retirement with upset win over No. 2 seed Kontaveit

Playing in the final tournament of her legendary career, Serena Williams turned back the clock, defeating number two seed Anett Kontaveit 7-6(4), 2-6, 6-2 to advance to the third round of the U.S. Open.

History can be made. Amid the men’s career Grand Slam race and Williams’ injury absence, the women’s mark has been somewhat forgotten. Here’s your reminder: Williams’ 23 majors are just one fewer than Margaret Court’s record. Because half of Court’s titles came before the Open Era, when majors first welcomed professional players, many consider Williams to be the greatest of all-time. Still, tying Court’s record would tilt things pretty indisputably in Williams’ favour.

Yet Williams isn’t feeling the pressure. Make no mistake, her victory over Kontaveit was an upset. In four matches since returning from injury at Wimbledon, Williams won just once — in Toronto against 62nd-ranked Nurriza Parrizas Diaz. Reigning U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu, who went out in the first round of this year’s tournament, bagelled Williams in a straight-sets victory in her final match before heading to Flushing Meadows. And so Williams referred to everything that happens now as “bonus,” and she’s able to play freely as such. She said it’s the first time she’s had that feeling since before winning her first U.S. Open at 17 years old in 1999.

Williams appears close to top form. She’s had major success more recently than you think, reaching the 2020 U.S. Open and 2021 Australian Open semifinals. Across 2018 and 2019, Williams made four major finals with the chance to tie Court’s record, but painfully lost all of them. Still, Williams’ performance last night was more impressive than could’ve been reasonably expected since her return. She had her trademark big first serve up to 119 MPH when it was needed, but she also dictated play during rallies with powerful groundstrokes. And if she can do all that against the second seed, the possibilities seem endless.

The draw isn’t daunting. Williams returns to singles play on Friday night, where she’ll take on 46th-ranked Ajla Tomljanovic. If she wins again, her fourth-round opponent is guaranteed to be an unseeded player. Canadian Bianca Andreescu, who beat her in the 2019 U.S. Open final, could await Williams in the quarters. But before all that, Williams will play first-round doubles action alongside sister Venus tonight, back at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Meanwhile, Wednesday brought mixed results for Canadians in the U.S. Open. On the positive end of things, Vancouver’s Rebecca Marino advanced to her first Grand Slam third round since 2011 and Andreescu cruised past National Bank Open finalist Beatriz Haddad Maia. But Felix Auger-Aliassime went out quietly in straight sets against England’s Jack Draper, while 2021 finalist Leylah Fernandez failed to recapture that magic when she was eliminated by unseeded Ludmilla Samsonova. Denis Shapovalov will aim to make it three Canadians in the third round when he meets 80th-ranked Spaniard Roberto Carballés Baena tonight.

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