Serena Williams paid tribute to the ‘crazy’ Arthur Ashe crowd and vowed to ‘lay it all out’ for her final ever tournament after securing a first-round US Open victory over Danka Kovinic on Monday night.
Williams, 40, is retiring when she bows out at Flushing Meadows, but she ensured that isn’t happening quite yet after her 6-3, 6-3 win – on the same court she has won six previous US Open titles in her extraordinary career.
Addressing the crowd during an emotional farewell ceremony in Queens, she said: ‘First of all, thanks. I didn’t expect any of this. You know, I always just gotta be the best I can. I feel so comfortable on this court in front of everyone here. When I step out onto the court, I just want to do the best I can do on that particular day.
Serena Williams was delighted to secure a victory in the first round of her final tournament
‘The crowd was CRAZY. They really helped pull me through. I was really pumped up, like, “Yes, I got this”.
‘It’s been such a hard decision. I think when you’re passionate about something and you love something so much, it’s always hard to walk away. Sometimes it gets harder to walk away than not. I’ve been trying to decide what to do for a while. I do [still love this game]. I also love it because it keeps you fit, which is a bonus.ADVERTISEMENT
‘I was like, “alright, I think now’s the time”. I have a family. There’s other chapters in life, I call it an evolution.
‘I have my company, Serena Ventures. Like I said, we invest in a lot of people, women, women of color, and men as well. I really wanted to spend more time at home and work on my spiritual life. It’s like Serena 2.0. I’m still going to be intense… I’ll still be around.’
Williams speaks to her daughter and husband on court after winning the first round match
In a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium, US Open organizers paid tribute to Williams with a series of montages and messages from the likes of Billie Jean King and Oprah Winfrey, with the latter reading a letter to the 23-time Grand Slam champion.
‘What’s there to say… the years went by in a blink,’ Winfrey’s message began, watched by a record crowd inside the arena. ’98 feels like yesterday. You’ve given us so much, all we can do is thank you.
‘Thank you for making the bright lights brighter, and the Big Apple bigger. Thank you for showing us how to be graceful, powerful, fearless. Thank you for dressing to the nines and bringing your dancing shoes.
‘Thank you for turning Centre Court into center stage. Thank you for bringing the house down. Thank you for showing us what it means to come back, and for never, ever backing down.
‘Thank you for changing the face of the game, and for inspiring the next generation. Thank you for thinking outside the lines and for encouraging us to evolve. Thank you for showing us how to love the sport, and for always loving us back.
‘Just know, whatever you do next… we’ll be watching you. With love, all of us.’
Tennis legend Billie Jean King was also on court in a bright pink outfit – chosen ‘because it’s Serena’s favorite color’ – and she recalled the time the pair first met.
‘We first met in April of 1988, when she was six years old and her sister was seven years old, at a tennis clinic where we had 1200 kids in Long Beach, California. I’ll never forget that day.
Williams celebrates during the match, in which she secured her place in the second round
A new attendance record was set inside the Arthur Ashe Stadium for the match Monday night
‘I had Serena hit, and then I said, “Can you serve?” She says, “Yeah I can serve.” I say, “Can we all see it?”, she says, “Okay.” Anyway, she serves… and I told her, “Don’t change a thing.” Her serve is by far the most beautiful in the history of our sport.’
King went on to label Williams as ‘fearless’ and said it’s ‘great’ how much she hates to lose.
‘Thank you for your leadership and commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, especially for women and women of color,’ she added, before finishing by shouting: ‘You’re just beginning.’
There was much talk on the night of Serena’s sparkling Nike outfit, which the six-time US Open champion revealed more about in her on-court interview after the match.
‘I have six layers to represent the six [US Open] wins, but I took four out because it was too heavy!’
When asked what she wanted people to remember about her legacy, Williams explained: ‘It’s so important to give your all no matter what you do, how many obstacles you face. I’ve been down so much so many times, in the public eye, and I’ve had to come back… but never give up.
Williams laughs during her interview with TV personality Gayle King after the match
‘It sounds cliched, but no matter what you’re going through, I just want people to be inspired by my story. I’m from Compton, California, and I made it!
‘This is [it]. We’re laying it all out here… I can’t speak for my sister, but it’s going to be so fun playing doubles. It’s going to be crazy. We haven’t done it in so long and I’m really looking forward to it.’
Conversation then turned to life after tennis, and it became clear exactly what Williams is looking forward to: family life.
‘I look forward to waking up and being like, “I don’t have to run to the court today.”, she explained. ‘I’m looking forward to being a good mom. She’s such a good girl.
‘I’m just me, I’m just Serena. I feel like I just blend in with the crowd sometimes. I feel like I do.
‘Just keep coming out and supporting me as long that I’m here. Just know that I love you so much and I’m so excited to be here!’