“After I lost the second set, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I have to do my best because this could be it,'” Williams told ESPN in an on-court interview after the game.
And Williams looked better than in previous games this year, as she was still trying to shake off the rust of her long absence.
At Kontaveit, though, Williams faced a tougher test and was undoubtedly the underdog on paper but certainly not with a full house at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
A boisterous but well mannered crowd cheered her at every point.
She referenced the lengthy layoff in her Wednesday interview but said, “I love a challenge.”
Williams will meet Australian Aja Tomljanovic in the third round. Tomljanovic, who was playing at the same time with Williams on Wednesday, beat Russian Evgenia Rodina 1-6, 6-2, 7-5.
Williams doesn’t just play singles; She will open doubles with her sister Venus Williams on Thursday evening.
“I need more matches,” she told ESPN. “I love rising to the challenge. Yes, I haven’t played many matches, but I’ve been training really well. In my last few matches, it’s not been together. Me.”
She said things have changed since she started playing at the World Open.
“I never liked the word retirement. It doesn’t feel like a modern word to me. I’ve been thinking of this as transition, but I want to be sensitive about how I use that word, which means something very specific,” Williams said in a Vogue article published earlier in This month is “important to a community of people”.
“Probably the best word to describe what I’m up to is development,” she said. “I’m here to tell you that I’m developing away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me.”
At her post-match press conference on Monday, Williams was asked if this would definitely be her last tournament.
“Yeah, you were pretty vague about that, right?” She said with a smile. “I’ll keep it a mystery because you never know.”
The opening round win over Kovinich was what Williams had looked like since returning from injury. She has only managed to win one match since her return to the ring in June and hasn’t come close to the level that helped her win her last Grand Slam title in 2017.
But Kontaveit, who said she was excited to play against Williams, faced a player who had shown no signs of wanting to speed up her retirement.
“I think she played really well,” the Estonian said during the post-match press conference. “I mean, I thought I had never played a bad game.”
Kontaveit said that after the players split in the first two sets, Williams ramped up her play in the decider.
“She really did run it from there,” she said. “There are a few points here and there where I feel I could have done better on my serve maybe. I mean, she was coming back better. She was playing rallies better. I felt like she did everything a little bit better in the third half set.”
Contevet added that the enthusiastic supporters of Williams were also a challenge.
“I mean, I guess they weren’t rooting against me. They just wanted Serena to win that bad,” the Estonian coach said. “So, I mean, I don’t think it’s a personal attack against me or anything. I mean, that’s fair. I mean, she deserves this, yeah.”
Williams exploded onto the scene by winning her first US Open in 1999
One of the greatest tennis players of all time, Williams has won 23 singles titles at the Grand Slam and won the US Open six times, most recently in 2014. Now aged 40, Williams’ career will begin as a finalist – whichever round it takes Turns out – it would take place on the site of her first Grand Slam win, the 1999 US Open.
Then just as a teen, Williams burst onto the scene to stun world number one Martina Hingis in the final and set the first springboard on her path toward two decades of dominance.
After Kontaveit won her first Tour title in 2017, her real year came in 2021 as she won four WTA Championships to move up the world rankings.
A fierce player with a varied game and powerful forehand, Kontaveit broke into the world’s top ten for the first time in November 2021 and has been a mainstay ever since.
She ranks second in her career – the highest in history for an Estonian – and at the age of 26 she was looking to improve on her best performance at a Grand Slam, her quarter-final appearance at the 2020 Australian Open.
Kontaveit looked impressive in her US Open opening round win over Romania’s Jacqueline Christian, losing just three matches, and said after winning that she was “rooting” Williams in her first round match.
CNN’s Steve Almassy contributed to this report.