What happened yesterday was no good. Don’t play with me like that, ma’am. Organs were palpitating. Armpits were moist. At one point, I curled up and contorted myself into a mollusk shape, rocking back and forth, eyes fixed to the concrete stadium floor below me, possibly, maybe (definitely) humming “I’m a Little Teapot” to no one in particular. It may not have been a hum.
That, ma’am, ain’t right. Can’t be abided by. But also—and I mean this from the deepest reaches of the remnants of my heart—please, please never stop. It’s complicated. This love of ours is messy.
Wednesday night at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, Serena Williams took to the stage—hair littered with jewels, trailed by “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”—and proceeded to pull starlight from charcoal. Through guile, strength, and spunk, the 40-year-old Williams upset the no. 2 seed—Anett Kontaveit, a woman 14 years her junior—and for an evening, held back the hands of time. If you were there, or were following on TV, radio, or even Twitter, at one point or another you ended up pooled like hot wax on the floor.
The stakes of the pageant partly explain this response. Twenty-seven years, 23 major championships, and a vaguely imminent retirement can turn even the coldest cynics into romantics. Still, it felt like Wednesday’s match was something more, something shared, tied to Williams’s professional arc and the public’s various connections to it. For the better part of two decades, her most effective gift has been her ability to yank planets into her orbit, to make the game hers and—through sheer strength of will and charisma—to make it ours as well. Wednesday’s match wasn’t the biggest win of Serena’s career, but it might be the one we remember the most, for the simple fact that it’s the one that we couldn’t help but live and die by.
Tiger was there, in the box with Venus and Oracene. Zendaya was there too. Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, and Spike, courtside, as always. Things were hushed to start; the first three games both players held serve, and folks filed in a tad late, but by the forth game the stadium sizzled. A note I made, around the time that Serena failed to capitalize on three break points in the seventh game of the first set: “It seems the crowd is loudest when it is trying to pick her up.”
In hindsight what is easy to miss about this first set is the degree to which Serena paced herself, the amount of times she grabbed a towel from the side of the stadium, or restrained her gait between shots. She was conserving energy, furtively so. The crowd attempted to fuel her. When she broke Kontaveit in the ninth game, my ears rang in a way I did not know was possible; the collective gasp-and-scream that surged through the rows came as the wind might. When she gave the break right back in the next game, the tension between points hung about in the air. Williams eventually held serve and sent the set to a tiebreaker. When she won it, the earth shook.
Here’s my mea culpa. After that first break in the second set, I thought she was going to lose. I know the vast and expansive history of folks who’ve lost their money betting on the downfall of Serena Jameka Williams, and if you’d let me in that moment, I would’ve bet on her downfall all the same. She’d lost her serve. She was down two breaks after three games. Kontaveit had siphoned the air out of the stadium. People kept looking up at the stars through the open roof, like they were awaiting celestial assistance, and the Estonian kept whipping scorchers and darts, wrist and arm movements, and a general apathy for the mood of the evening. After what felt like her first ace of the set, Serena threw her hands up to the sky. She lost the set, 2-6.
Can Serena take this into her own hands? is the question I asked myself at the time. What a ridiculous thing to wonder in the year 2022—to need to know, and want to know, and have to genuinely proffer. There was a moment in the second game of the final set, after Serena had held serve and was looking to break Kontaveit, to somehow put a thumb on the scales of momentum and hold it, when she began to direct the crowd. They boo a tight call and she holds her hand in the air to silence them. She pumps her fist and they return, the wind at her back. I cannot remember much from the second the dam burst but this: A man to my left with a black mask and gray collared shirt was full-throat screaming. You could see it from his jugular. I recall this, and the sloping sections of the stadium, and the realization that we are all the man with a black mask and gray collared shirt: Everybody’s screaming.
The rally stretched an eon. Serena’s capacity as a returner—how she wields flexibility and muscle memory to reclaim subterranean shots with a flick or a heave—is nothing less than staggering. (“Serena just upped her game,” Kontaveit would later say, before she dropped her head, sobbing, and exited the press conference.) The crowd erupted, arms waving, dancing, jiggling. She broke, 3-1. Phones were out, the people were on their feet. Both players held serve, back to back. 4-2. Tiger’s fist was pumping, and Serena wasn’t wearing red, but she might as well have been. She held again. 5-2.
Kontaveit melted in the last game. Triple match point. I could not tell if the buzzing in my chest was from the swarm of applause swirling around Arthur Ashe Stadium or a stew of butterflies bubbling in my rib cage. Someone just screamed, “Finish her.” 6-2, game, set, match.
Postgame, Mary Joe Fernández asked Serena how she was able to take her game to another plane. The 23-time champion burst out laughing.
She’s been mining this forever.
“I’m a pretty good player,” Serena said.
Her timing couldn’t have been better.