Does she really want to retire?
Serena Williams may not win the U.S. Open — in fact, it’s likely she won’t — but she’s proven one thing through two rounds of this tournament. After beating No. 2 seed Anett Kontaveit 7-6, 2-6, 6-2, we know Williams can still play at a high, high level.
Frankly, it wasn’t certain that was possible at this stage of the game. For a variety of reasons, Williams hadn’t shown it since she made the 2021 Australian Open semifinals. That was 19 months ago. At age 40, when you’ve gone that long without looking like one of the best in the world, it’s hard to know if it’ll ever happen again.
For one night, it did. Buoyed by the crowd, and playing more freely than she did in Monday’s first round, Williams surged, then looked every bit her age, then dug into her well of experience and resolve to come through a third set that rattled her 26-year-old opponent.
And ultimately, it put Williams into the third round of a draw that has suddenly laid out a plausible path for the quarterfinals or beyond.
With Kontaveit now out of the way, Williams will face unseeded Ajla Tomljanovic in the third round. After that? There’s no other seeded player in her way until at least the final eight.
Somehow, against significant odds, it’s not premature to start looking ahead and plotting a path to something special next week.
Williams has said she’s probably done after this tournament, but no matter where this ends, she’s not running on fumes. Her top level is still very, very good. Imagine what it might be if she said she was fully committing every ounce of energy left in her body to one more year with all the training and tournament preparation and travel that she can physically stand.
Barring a change of heart, it’s not going to happen. But seeing how Williams performed Wednesday night against a legitimate top player would have to at least raise the question in her mind: What if?
No athlete at this age knows exactly what will happen when they get out of bed in the morning. But in the first set, Williams played about as well as she can at this point in her career.
She served beautifully. She returned good serves with depth, purpose and pace. In the middle of some rallies, she defended like a 25-year-old, not someone whose movement has precipitously declined over the last few years. For about an hour, Williams turned back the clock. And she barely won it, eking out the set in a tiebreaker.
It didn’t seem sustainable, and it proved not to be as Williams crashed back to earth in the second set, losing 6-2. But it was also a wonderful reminder of the tennis Williams is still capable of producing, at least in short bursts.
The question was whether she had enough in the tank to push back one more time. The answer was an emphatic yes.
From the beginning of the third set, Williams was more consistent, more composed and more powerful than Kontaveit, who despite her lofty ranking has only advanced to the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam once in her career. When the pressure rose and the stakes got really, really high, Kontaveit was out of her league.
It was a glimpse of what even a diminished Williams can be at 40. And it was perhaps a signal that the next several days are about to get crazy.
SPORTS NEWSLETTER: Get the latest news and analysis in your inbox
“I’m just looking at it as a bonus. I don’t have anything to prove. I don’t have anything to win,” Williams said after the match. ” … I’ve never got to play like this since ’98. Literally, I’ve had an ‘X’ on my back since ’99 [when she won her first US Open], so it’s kind of fun. I really enjoy just coming out here and enjoying it. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to do that.”
Part of the problem with the last few years of Williams’ career is that she just hasn’t played very much tennis. She’s been so good that she can come to Grand Slam events and often advance deep into the draw without as much match preparation as her rivals. But when you look at the times she’s come up just short, including four losses in Slam finals since giving birth to daughter Olympia, you wonder whether a few more tournaments here, a few more intense training blocks there, might have made all the difference.
The word is that Williams went all-in to prepare for this U.S. Open. Adding doubles legend and ESPN commentator Rennae Stubbs to her coaching team changed up her usual practice routine. She even played several practice sets against other WTA players, something she’s hardly done in her two decades on tour.
And you can see the difference it’s made in Williams’ game this week. She’s moving and defending extremely well. She’s cut down on the wild misses. The timing of her ball strike looks good.
But as much as her fans might want her to play forever, that’s not a fair standard either. It’s one thing to spend a month gearing up for a last dance. It’s a totally different level of commitment to do it all year long, much less when the body doesn’t really want to do that much work.
That’s the concession that Williams has made. She knows what it will take to compete with today’s players, and it’s not easy. It may not even be something she wants to do.
That’s what makes a night like Wednesday so special, and so rare. For one perfect night, Serena Williams was legitimately one of the best players in the world.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken