By HOWARD FENDRICH AP Tennis Writer
NEW YORK — Serena Williams can call it “evolving” or “retiring” or whatever she wants. And she can be coy about whether or not this U.S. Open will actually mark the end of her playing days. Those 23 Grand Slam titles earned her that right.
If she keeps playing like this, who knows how long this farewell will last?
No matter what happens once her trip to Flushing Meadows is over, here is what is important to know after Wednesday night: The 40-year-old Williams is still around, she’s still capable of terrific tennis, she’s still winning – and, like the adoring spectators whose roars filled Arthur Ashe Stadium again – she’s ready for more.
Williams eliminated No. 2 seed Anett Kontaveit, 7-6 (4), 2-6, 6-2, in the second round to ensure that she will play at least one more singles match at what she’s hinted will be the last tournament of her illustrious career.
“There’s still a little left in me,” Williams said with a smile during her on-court interview.
“This is what I do best,” she added. “I love a challenge and I’m rising to the challenge.”
Oh, is she ever. After beating 80th-ranked Danka Kovinic in straight sets Monday, then collecting her 23rd victory in her past 25 matches against someone ranked No. 1 or No. 2 against Kontaveit on Wednesday, the six-time champion at Flushing Meadows will play Friday for a spot in the fourth round. Her opponent will be Ajla Tomljanovic, a 29-year-old Australian.
Asked how she’s doing it so far, Williams replied with a hearty laugh: “Well, I’m a pretty good player.”
She hit serves at up to 119 mph, stayed with Kontaveit during lengthy exchanges of big swings from the baselines and conjured some of her trademark brilliance when it was needed most.
After pulling out a tight first set, then faltering a bit in the second, Williams headed to the locker room for a bit of a break before the third.
Something had to give, someone had to blink.
When they resumed, it was Williams who lifted her level and emerged as the better player.
Just as she’s done so many times, on so many stages, with so much at stake.
“I’m just Serena. After I lost the second set, I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, I better give my best effort because this could be it,’” Williams said, surely echoing the thoughts of every one of the people paying any attention.
“I’m super competitive. Honestly, I’m just looking at it as a bonus. I don’t have anything to prove,” she said, which certainly is true. “I never get to play like this – since ’98, really. Literally, I’ve had an ‘X’ on my back since ’99,” the year she claimed her first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open at age 17.
Williams missed about a year of action before returning to the tour in late June at Wimbledon. She lost in the first round there and was 1-3 in 2022 entering this event, where she is 2-0 this week.
Williams also has doubles to play, too. She and her sister, Venus, have won 14 major championships as a team and will begin that event Thursday night.
SAKKARI FALLS, GAUFF, KEYS ADVANCE
The last two women’s champions were already out of the U.S. Open and now one of last year’s semifinalists is gone.
Top players are falling fast in Flushing Meadows. Hours before Williams took down Kontaveit, third-seeded Maria Sakkari was ousted, 3-6, 7-5, 7-5, by Wang Xiyu of China in the second round.
Sakkari reached two Grand Slam semifinals last year but has had a difficult time backing up her success in 2022, acknowledging this week that she struggled to handle a higher profile that came with her rise to No. 3 in the rankings. She said some days she didn’t enjoy tennis and didn’t even want to get out of bed.
The Greek said she was happier coming into this tournament but her game just wasn’t quite good enough against the 75th-ranked Wang, who advanced past the second round of a major for the first time.
“It’s disappointing, it hurts, because I was feeling better, I was enjoying myself, feeling good on the court and it was just very disappointing that my level was that low today,” Sakkari said.
No. 12 Coco Gauff and 20th-seeded Madison Keys avoided the trouble, setting up a third-round matchup between the Americans. Gauff beat Elena Gabriela Ruse, 6-2, 7-6 (4), while 2017 U.S. Open runner-up Keys outlasted Camili Giorgi, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (6).
Sakkari’s loss came after defending champion Emma Raducanu and two-time winner Naomi Osaka were eliminated Tuesday night in the first round. That left Bianca Andreescu, who beat Williams in the 2019 final, as the most recent U.S. Open women’s champion still in the field.
Andreescu was set to face No. 15 seed Beatriz Haddad Maia on Wednesday night.
Coming off her run to the Wimbledon final, No. 5 Ons Jabeur matched her best U.S. Open result with a 7-5, 6-2 victory over Elizabeth Mandlik, the daughter of 1985 champion Hana Mandlikova. Jabeur lost in the third round in each of her last three trips to New York.
“I have a mission,” Jabeur said. “I’m No. 5 in the world, so for me, I’m trying to represent that number as much as I can so I can really improve my game and I can really continue and improve my ranking, hopefully.”
She will play American Shelby Rogers, the No. 31 seed who beat Viktoria Kuzmova, 7-5, 6-1.
Three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray rebounded quickly after dropping the first set to power past American Emilio Nava, 5-7, 6-3, 6-1, 6-0, and set up a third-round meeting with No. 13 seed Matteo Berrettini.
KYRGIOS OFFERS BLUNT TAKE
Nick Kyrgios already was aware of the noise being a challenge at the U.S. Open.
On Wednesday, he also was bothered by the smell.
Kyrgios complained about the smell of marijuana during his second-round victory in Louis Armstrong Stadium.
The Wimbledon runner-up said afterward he was a heavy asthmatic and that when he was running side to side and struggling to breathe that the smell was “probably not something I want to be breathing in in between points.”
The No. 23 seed overcame it to eliminate Benjamin Bonzi, 7-6 (3), 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.
Defending men’s champion Daniil Medvedev was set to follow Williams on Arthur Ashe Stadium.
More to come on this story.
AP sports writer Brian Mahoney contributed to this story.