Serena Williams

Serena Williams: Williams met a valedictory night at the U.S. Open with a win that was fitting, and with a second-round match on Wednesday, the farewell party at Arthur Ashe Stadium continues.

It was an opening night at the U.S. Open that could have been the closing night of Serena Williams’s 27-year professional singles career.

But win or lose, Williams was getting the ceremonial treatment in Arthur Ashe Stadium. The guest list and laudatory tone were set; the protocol and the videos narrated by Queen Latifah and Oprah Winfrey were in place.

It felt closer to a rock concert than a first-round tennis match as Williams walked into the sold-out stadium where she has experienced triumph and heartache in fairly equal measure only to be greeted this time by perhaps the loudest extended roar of support she has experienced in her nearly 41 years.

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“Overwhelming,” Williams said. “I could feel it in my chest, and it was a really good feeling. It’s a feeling I will never forget and that meant a lot to me.”

It was the message and gift that the crowd of nearly 24,000 in Ashe Stadium wanted to deliver with Williams nearing the finish line.

A loss to the 80th-ranked Danka Kovinic would have been no surprise. Williams has struggled with her movement and timing since returning to action in June after nearly a one-year hiatus.

In her early comeback tournaments, she had looked late to the ball and late to the realization that time is undefeated. In her last match before the U.S. Open, she was beaten, 6-4, 6-0, in the first round of the Western and Southern Open in Mason, Ohio, by a player less than half her age: 19-year-old Emma Raducanu, last year’s big-surprise U.S. Open women’s singles champion.

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New York, despite the valedictory mood, was in danger of becoming a downer, and Williams was hardly reassuring in the early going against Kovinic as she went down a service break with double faults and unforced errors piling up.

But with Kovinic serving and just one point away from a 4-2 first-set lead, Williams struck a backhand return that landed on the outside edge of the baseline for a winner that got her back to deuce.

It was a slightly mis-hit shot that easily could have produced a different outcome, but the winner rattled Kovinic, who double-faulted twice in a row.

It was 3-3 in a hurry, and Williams took the hint and the momentum, sweeping the next three games to take the first set and then clicking into a gear she has not experienced in quite some time to take command.

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Troubled by knee pain in Ohio, she looked significantly quicker on Monday. She made errors on the move but at least she was moving. Though this was hardly vintage Williams, there were certainly nods to past glories as she began ripping ferocious full-cut return winners, closing on high balls with cocksure swing volleys, and even holding serve at love.

Raducanu, who barely made an unforced error and rarely had to hit a second serve in the last tournament Williams played before Monday night, was certainly a higher hurdle to clear than Kovinic, who finished with eight double faults and put only 44 percent of her first serves in play.

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But this, by the end, was an improved Williams, and it was evident her confidence grew as the match progressed in this grand yet so-familiar space.

She was asked if the idea of retirement was now causing her less pain. In Toronto, shortly after her announcement, she broke down in tears at the post-match ceremony after losing to Belinda Bencic in the second round.

“I do feel different; I think I was emotional in Toronto and Cincinnati, and it was very difficult,” Williams said. “It’s extremely difficult still because I love being out there. The more tournaments I play, I feel like the more I can belong out there. That’s a tough feeling to have and to leave knowing the more you do it, the more you can shine. But it’s time for me, you know, to evolve to the next thin

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