Anett Kontaveit walked out of the players’ tunnel first, with barely a notice from the audience in Arthur Ashe Stadium, which was half full at the time. She made a small waving gesture, to no one in particular, and then went to her chair to prepare for her role as the villain in the biggest tennis spectacle of her life: the Serena Williams U.S. Open.
As Williams made her own appearance to thunderous applause moments later, Kontaveit never looked up or glanced over. She just continued to put on her wrist bands, drink water and select her first racket.
Then she got up, walked onto the court first, knowing that for the vast majority of people in the building, she was there only to be the foil for the queen of tennis, there to lose.
In the face of a tidal wave of support for Williams, Kontaveit played her role as the anti-hero as if fashioned from a script, playing well enough to raise the drama, but not well enough to win. Williams took the match, 7-6 (4), 2-6, 6-2, to advance to the third round, eliminating the worthy Estonian challenger from the U.S. Open.
But Kontaveit did not go out without conjuring some of the best tennis from Williams in years. She made some brilliant shots and penetrating serves, but Williams was better on the biggest points, to the delight of 29,959 spectators, a record crowd for a U.S. Open night session.
Serena Williams’s Farewell to Tennis
The U.S. Open could be the tennis star’s last professional tournament after a long career of breaking boundaries and obliterating expectations.
- Decades of Greatness: Over 27 years, Serena Williams dominated generation after generation of opponents and changed the way women’s tennis is played, winning 23 Grand Slam singles titles and cementing her reputation as the queen of comebacks.
- Is She the GOAT?: Proclaiming Williams the greatest women’s tennis player of all time is not a straightforward debate, our columnist writes.
- An Enduring Influence: From former and current players’ memories of a young Williams to the new fans she drew to tennis, Williams has left a lasting impression.
- Her Fashion: Since she turned professional in 1995, Williams has used her clothes as a statement of self and a weapon of change.
Soon after, Kontaveit had gathered her belongings and was back in the locker room, while on the court Williams celebrated and accepted the adulation of the fans.
The early going was close, primarily because Williams was serving and moving so well, firing first serves past Kontaveit and crushing returns deep to the baseline. Kontaveit showed frustration on a few points and moved slowly to her chair after Williams broke her serve to gain a 5-4 lead in the first set.
But Kontaveit demonstrated her own inner toughness to break right back, with Williams double faulting on the final point of the game. But then the set went to a tiebreaker, which Williams won with huge serves. When Williams secured the first set and celebrated with a mighty pose, Kontaveit merely ambled back to her chair as the fans unleashed their loudest cheers yet.
Kontaveit knew what was coming well before the match. She understood she would be facing a substantial onslaught of support in favor of her opponent, and claimed it would relieve her of all expectations and pressure.
“I think the atmosphere is going to be amazing,” Kontaveit predicted in a news conference Monday after her straight-sets, first-round victory over Jaqueline Adina Cristian of Romania. “I’m really looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be one of those matches this year that I haven’t had too many, where I just have no pressure on me. I’ll just get to enjoy and play as good as I can on the day.”
The noise was not unexpected. The precedent was set on Monday during Williams’s declarative first-round straight-sets win over Danka Kovinic of Montenegro. That crowd for that match was so loud, and in such a celebratory mood, that Kovinic said she could not hear the ball coming off the strings of the rackets, an important signifier of how the ball might move after it lands.
Kovinic was herself swept up in the festivities, too. She said she caught herself staring in amazement at all the celebrities in attendance as they were arrayed on the giant video screens during changeovers — former President Bill Clinton, the former champion boxer Mike Tyson, the singer Gladys Knight, Francisco Lindor of the Mets, and many others.
“I could never imagine all of these important people were watching me,” Kovinic said. “I mean, that’s thanks to Serena.”
Kovinic was ranked No. 80. Kontaveit, with her No. 2 ranking, posed a much more serious threat to Williams. A heavy-hitting, hard server, Kontaveit can also change pace with a backhand slice to reset her position and then blast away again.
But despite her ranking, Kontaveit has struggled lately, losing three of her last four matches on hardcourts entering the U.S. Open. She said she contracted Covid-19 in April and had difficulty regaining her physical form. Her one singles title this year came at St. Petersburg, Russia, in February, but she also made it to the finals in Doha, Qatar, later that month.
Kontaveit reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open in her first try in 2015, but since then has not been immune to getting knocked out in the first or second round of a major. It has happened 15 times in the 26 majors she has entered since that run. Her best result at a major is reaching the quarterfinal stage at the 2020 Australian Open, where she lost to Simona Halep.
She does have some experience of going deep into the tournament at the U.S. Open. As a junior in 2012 she reached the final, losing to Samantha Crawford.
This year, players have commented that the courts at the U.S.T.A. Billie Jean King National Tennis Center are faster than normal, a factor that would tend to enhance the playing style of both Williams and Kontaveit, since each relies on power. Kontaveit indicated she was all for it.
After an early exit from the Western and Southern Open outside Cincinnati, she arrived early in New York and practiced on the same courts. The difference was that then, there was virtually no one in the stadium watching. On Wednesday, the entire tennis world was tuned in.
As Kontaveit said on Monday, “I’m not sure if I’ll ever experience something like this again.”