Will the US Open really be the end for Williams?
|Place: Flushing Meadows, New York Dates: August 29-September 11|
|Coverage: Daily radio commentary on BBC Sounds and the BBC Sport website and app, with selected live text commentary and match reports on the website and app|
From glowing video tributes and an array of A-list stars in attendance, everything on a night of celebration at the US Open pointed to Serena Williams’ imminent retirement.
Williams’ first-round match on Monday – which could have been the finale of her storied career – was the centerpiece of an emotional fanfare at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York.
The 23-time Grand Slam singles champion recently announced that she plans to “evolve away” from the sport and her home major is expected to be a farewell.
But after beating Montenegro’s Danka Kovinic in the first round, the 40-year-old Williams continued to play a guessing game.
Asked if this was definitely her final tournament, she smiled and said: “I’ve been pretty vague about it. I’ll stay vague because you never know.”
Night matches at Ashe always create an electric atmosphere, but this was another level for many others and provided a sense of theater and drama not often seen in a tennis event.
It began with a video montage paying tribute to Williams’ achievements as a player and as a person as she waited backstage before arriving in a glittering cape dress and diamond-encrusted sneakers.
A host of big-name celebrities from fashion, film, television, music and politics were watching from the crowd, before tennis legend Billie Jean King and TV icon Oprah Winfrey paid tribute in another post match celebration.
That came after Williams showed she could still win at the highest level, overcoming a poor start to beat world number 80 Kovinic in straight sets.
Asked if nights like these had changed his mind about his retirement plans, the former world number one said: “It’s still extremely difficult because I love being out there.
“The more tournaments I play, the more I feel like I can belong out there. It’s a hard feeling to have, and let it be known that the more you do it, the more you can shine.
“But it’s time for me to, you know, evolve into the next thing. I think it’s important because there’s a lot of other things I want to do.”
Williams lives in the moment, but what happens?
With this potential farewell for Williams, it was no surprise that the six-time US Open wanted to honor one of its greatest champions in front of an adoring crowd.
But his victory also raises the question of what will happen after when, or maybe if? – Lose in New York this fortnight.
“It was really loud. I was overwhelmed in a good way,” Williams said of the reception when he came out.
“I was just thinking, like: Is this for real? At the same time, I’m also thinking: I still have a game to play.”
At the 2021 Australian Open, Williams said she would not tell anyone when it was time to retire and was upset when she was pushed harder in Melbourne.
Many thought that day had already arrived with her nearly a year out of action, but she then returned to the tour to prepare for this year’s Wimbledon.
Then came last month’s announcement in Vogue of his plan to “evolve away” from the sport.
Sources close to the former world number one have told BBC Sport it is definitely the end for Williams, who wants to expand her family with husband Alexis and give four-year-old daughter Olympia a brother or sister.
Many players, including Williams, have successfully returned to the sport after becoming mothers, but none as old as a player who turns 41 next month.
Maybe the US Open plan was to celebrate his career in the glow of a victory? Then leave it to Williams, who says she was “very emotional” after recent losses in Toronto and Cincinnati, to climb relatively quietly after any outing at Flushing Meadows.
Second seed Anett Kontaveit, who has struggled for consistent form this year despite her ranking, will face Estonia on Wednesday.
“At this point, honestly, I feel like everything is a plus for me,” Williams said when asked about the second-round matchup.
“I mean, I think all the opponents are very difficult. I saw it during the summer. The next one is even more difficult.
“It’s good that I was able to get this. I don’t know, I’m not even thinking about it.
“I’m just thinking about this moment. I think it’s good for me to just live in the moment now.”