Serena wins again at U.S. Open, beating No. 2 seed Kontaveit

2022 US Open - Day 3
Getty Images
52 Comments

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 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: 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 U.S. Open’s 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, then collecting her 23rd victory in her past 25 matches against someone ranked No. 1 or No. 2 against Kontaveit, the six-time champion at Flushing Meadows will play for a spot in the fourth round.

Her opponent will be Ajla Tomljanovic, a 29-year-old Australian who is ranked 46th. They’ve never met.

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 up some of her trademark brilliance when it was needed most.

After pulling out a tight first set, then faltering 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.

Whatever rust accumulated when Williams missed about a year of action before returning to the tour in late June at Wimbledon appears to have vanished. She lost in the first round at the All England Club to a player ranked outside the top 100 and was 1-3 in 2022 entering the U.S. Open.

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.

Kontaveit, a 26-year-old from Estonia, is a powerful hitter in her own right, the sort that spread across women’s tennis over the past two decades after a pair of siblings from Compton, California, changed the game.

But there’s a big caveat attached to Kontaveit’s ranking status: She has never won so much as one quarterfinal match at any Grand Slam tournament in 30 career appearances.

So maybe that’s why, much like with Kovinic 48 hours earlier, Williams’ opponent was introduced just by her name, and Kontaveit walked out to a smattering of applause. Williams, in contrast, got the full treatment: highlight video, a listing of her many accolades and raucous roars.

When the players met at the net for the coin toss and pre-match photos, Kontaveit looked over at Williams with a smile. Williams glanced back straight-faced.

The match began with Kontaveit grabbing the first five points, Williams the next five. And on they went, back and forth. Kontaveit’s mistakes were cheered – even faults, drawing an admonishment for the crowd from chair umpire Alison Hughes about making noise between serves.

If anything, Kontaveit received more acknowledgment from the player trying to defeat her than anyone else, as Williams would respond to great shots with a nod or a racket clap.

Williams broke for a 5-4 edge when Kontaveit pushed a backhand long, spurring yelling spectators to rise to their feet – and Williams’ husband, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, jumped right in, too, waving his arms in her direction, a few rows in front of where Venus and Tiger Woods were two seats apart.

But with a chance to serve out that set, Williams briefly lost her way. A missed forehand. A backhand long. A backhand into the net as she went down on one knee. A double-fault made it 5-all.

Eventually they went to a tiebreaker, and at 3-3, a chant of “Let’s go, Serena!” broke out, accompanied by rhythmic clapping. Soon, Williams was delivering a 101 mph service winner and a 91 mph ace to seal that set. Just like old times.

To Kontaveit’s credit, she did not fold, did not let the disappointment of dropping that set linger.

Instead, she raced to a 3-0 edge in the second over the next 15 minutes on the strength of 10 winners and zero unforced errors.

In the third, it was Williams who gained the upper hand, and it seemed every point she won elicited an enthusiastic response. After a swinging forehand volley winner put Williams a game from victory, she raised both arms, then clenched her left fist.

One game, and five minutes later, it was over – and her stay at the U.S. Open could proceed.

Nakashima takes first ATP Tour title at San Diego

San Diego Open - Finals
Getty Images
2 Comments

SAN DIEGO – Brandon Nakashima earned his first ATP Tour victory in his hometown, beating friend and fellow Southern Californian Marcos Giron 6-4, 6-4 in the San Diego Open final.

“It’s super-special, something you dream of, but to have it happen in my hometown with all my friends and family here, it’s a moment I’ll never forget,” said Nakashima, who had two previous finals appearances. “I hope there are many more moments like this to come.”

Nakashima, a 21-year-old who grew up in San Diego and trained extensively at the event’s site as a junior, clinched the opening set in only 30 minutes. The second set, filled with lengthy rallies, took nearly an hour.

Giron, the No. 5 seed and former NCAA title winner from UCLA, wasn’t able to fend off Nakashima’s persistent ground strokes and well-placed serves. Nakashima had eight aces, six in the first set.

Serving at 5-4 in the second set, Nakashima tallied the match’s deciding two points when Giron pushed an easy volley into the net, followed by Nakashima’s second-serve ace.

He earned $93,090, about half of what received for reaching the third round of the U.S. Open in early September.

Nakashima, who was ranked No. 69 on the ATP Tour, moved up to 48, his highest ranking in nearly three years on tour. Despite the loss, Giron moved up to 53 from 58.

Not only was the singles title claimed by an American, the doubles title also taken by an American duo as the second-seeded pair of Nathaniel Lammons and Jackson Withrow defeated Australians Jason Kubler and Luke Saville 7-6 (5), 6-2.

The $612,00 event was held at Barnes Tennis Center, which next hosts the $757,900 WTA 500 San Diego Open, Oct. 8-16. That will feature 16 of the world’s top-ranked 20 women pros, led by No. 1 Iga Swiatek.

Frances Tiafoe lifts Team World to 1st Laver Cup win

Getty Images
3 Comments

LONDON — The last to arrive, befitting his reputation in the locker room, Frances Tiafoe strutted into the post-match news conference after clinching Team World’s Laver Cup victory over Roger Federer’s star-studded Team Europe and shouted, “Champs are here!”

Then the 24-year-old from Maryland joined his teammates at the table where the silver trophy was resting Sunday night, put down a bottle of water, pulled a Budweiser out of his red jacket and smiled that wide smile of his.

Performing with the same infectious showmanship and crunch-time success he displayed en route to his first Grand Slam semifinal at the U.S. Open earlier this month, Tiafoe staved off four match points and came back to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 1-6, 7-6 (11), 10-8, giving Team World its first triumph in five editions of an event founded by Federer’s management company.

“I don’t like losing,” said Federer, a 20-time major champion whose final match before retirement was a loss alongside Rafael Nadal in doubles against Tiafoe and Jack Sock on Friday night. “It’s not fun. It just leaves not the best taste.”

When Tsitsipas put a forehand into the net to end Sunday’s contest – and the three-day competition – Tiafoe dropped his racket and fell to his back on the court, where teammates piled atop him. After getting on his feet, Tiafoe cupped a hand to his ear, asking spectators for more noise, then pointed to his chest and yelled, “I’m him! I’m him!”

“When it becomes a circus out here, and I’m just using the crowd and acting like a little kid and having a bunch of reactions … I end up playing really well and I start building momentum off it,” Tiafoe said. “I’m able to play and function in that better than my opponents, it seems.”

Using the nickname other players gave Tiafoe to reflect the way he embraces big moments, Team World captain John McEnroe said: “Frances is `Prime Time.’ He loves this stuff.”

McEnroe had been 0-4 while leading his squad against his former playing rival, Team Europe captain Bjorn Borg; both indicated they would be back for the 2023 Laver Cup in Vancouver, but that might be their last go-round.

This one served as a celebration of Federer and the 41-year-old Swiss star’s career.

Tiafoe responded with a quip when asked whether he might owe Federer some form of “I’m sorry” for beating him in his finale or for defeating his team, which also included Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray for a total of 66 major singles titles. That, incidentally, is 66 more than Team World, a collection of 20-somethings (Sock turned 30 on Saturday).

“”I’m not going to apologize to him. He’s got a lot to apologize for after the last 24 years – after beating everybody on the tour,” said Tiafoe, who went 0-3 against Federer in singles head-to-head. “I will say thank you for having me in this amazing event, what he’s done for the game. He’s a class act. Happy to know him, happy to call him a friend, happy to call him a colleague, and best wishes in his second act. But I will not apologize.”

Team Europe entered Sunday at O2 Arena with an 8-4 lead; the first team to 13 points would win.

Each match on Day 3 was worth three points, and Team World went ahead thanks to a pair of victories by Felix Auger-Aliassime, a 22-year-old from Canada. He beat Djokovic 6-3, 7-6 (3), after partnering with Sock to edge Murray and Matteo Berrettini 2-6, 6-3, 10-8 in doubles.

Tiafoe then made it 13-8, but it wasn’t easy.

He went a tournament-record 8-0 in tiebreakers at Flushing Meadows this month and was just as resilient Sunday.

“It’s been a long time that Frances has been playing the big guys close and losing a lot of close battles. It’s great to see lately he’s been winning,” said Taylor Fritz, an American who is the same age as Tiafoe and has known him for years. “It’s about time that he steps up and the matches go the other way. Today was a joke.”

That’s because Tiafoe was a single point from losing to Tsitsipas four times in their second-set tiebreaker, but somehow got through that. Then, at 4-all in the concluding match tiebreaker – first to 10, win by two – Tiafoe sprinted from behind the baseline to near the net and barely got to a drop shot by Tsitsipas, somehow lunging to flick an angled winner.

While most of the 16,365 fans went wild, Tiafoe went around the net and stood still, hands on his hips, relishing the atmosphere.

“We put him in the slot that he was in today for a reason,” said Team World’s Tommy Paul, another 24-year-old American, “and he stepped up for us, big time.”