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Serena Williams’ not-so-‘farewell’ match at US Open draws Bill Clinton, Anna Wintour, and others

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Serena Wil
Serena Wil

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The hottest ticket in sports gave way to a star-studded crowd at New York’s Arthur Ashe Stadium, where Vera Wang, Mike Tyson, Hugh Jackman, Anna Wintour and even Bill Clinton were all on hand to see Serena Williams begin her final US Open with an easy victory over Danka Kovinic. 

Anthony Anderson, Huma Abedin, Spike Lee, Rebel Wilson, Lindsey Vonn, and New York Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor were also in attendance, as was Mayor Eric Adams. 

Having previously announced her intention to ‘evolve’ away from tennis after this year’s US Open (don’t say ‘retirement’), Williams breezed by her first-round opponent, Kovinic, 6-3, 6-3, in Queens on Monday night.  

Williams could not have picked a better venue to begin her farewell than Flushing, where she’s won six singles titles and a pair of doubles crowns in front of New York celebrities, many of whom were seen sitting together on Monday night. 

Tyson was alongside retired tennis legend, Martina Navratilova, and her well-behaved lap dog, while Clinton was curiously seated next to Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the famous German-American sex therapist and talk show host. And of course, Serena’s billionaire husband Alexis Ohanian was pictured next to one of the evening’s biggest celebrities, the couple’s four-year-old daughter, Olympia.

Naturally, the demand to see Williams one last time was historic. 

The average resale ticket price for this year’s US Open is up 68 percent to $512 since Williams’ retirement announcement, according to ticketing and marketing analytics company, TicketIQ.

Meanwhile, secondary-market ticket prices for Monday’s first-round match spiked 300 percent, with the average ticket price hitting $987 — a record since TicketIQ began tracking the data in 2011.

And of course, those fans weren’t paying to watch Kovinic, who was up against Williams and all of Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday. 

‘The crowd was crazy,’ Williams said during her post-match ceremony. ‘They really helped pull me through. I was really pumped up, like, ”Yes, I got this.”

‘I just want people to think how hard one tries,’ Williams continued, speaking with CBS’ Gayle King. ‘It’s so important to give your all no matter what you do, how many obstacles you face. I’ve been down so much so many times, in the public eye, and I’ve had to come back… but never give up. 

‘It sounds cliched, but no matter what you’re going through, I just want people to be inspired by my story. I’m from Compton, California, and I made it.’

Serena Williams breezed to an easy first-round win over Montenegro's Danka Kovinic on Monday night in Flushing, Queens

Serena Williams breezed to an easy first-round win over Montenegro’s Danka Kovinic on Monday night in Flushing, Queens

Serena's husband Alexis Ohanian sat next to one of the evening's biggest celebrities, the couple's daughter, Olympia

Serena’s husband Alexis Ohanian sat next to one of the evening’s biggest celebrities, the couple’s daughter, Olympia

Serena Williams of the United States celebrates after defeating Danka Kovinic of Montenegro during the Women's Singles First Round on Day One of the 2022 US Open at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Monday

Serena Williams celebrates after defeating Danka Kovinic of Montenegro on Monday night in New York

Serena Williams celebrates after defeating Danka Kovinic of Montenegro on Monday night in New York 

Curiously, Bill Clinton was seen seated next to German-American sex therapist and talk show host, Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Curiously, Bill Clinton was seen seated next to German-American sex therapist and talk show host, Dr. Ruth Westheimer 

Actor Hugh Jackman (C) watches Serena Williams play Danka Kovinic of Montenegro in their first-round match

Actor Hugh Jackman (C) watches Serena Williams play Danka Kovinic of Montenegro in their first-round match

nna Wintour looks on prior to the match between Serena Williams and Danika Kovinic of Montenegro on Monday in Queens

nna Wintour looks on prior to the match between Serena Williams and Danika Kovinic of Montenegro on Monday in Queens

Mike Tyson was seen alongside retired tennis legend, Martina Navratilova, and her well-behaved lap dog

Mike Tyson was seen alongside retired tennis legend, Martina Navratilova, and her well-behaved lap dog

Gayle King, center, in addition to New York City Mayor Eric Adams, center right, and New York Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor (lower right) are all pictured seated at Serena Williams' match in Queens on Monday night

Gayle King, center, in addition to New York City Mayor Eric Adams, center right, and New York Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor (lower right) are all pictured seated at Serena Williams’ match in Queens on Monday night 

Former US President William J. Clinton (C) watches Serena Williams of the US play Danka Kovinic of Montenegro

Former US President William J. Clinton (C) watches Serena Williams of the US play Danka Kovinic of Montenegro

In her first match at what is expected to be the last US Open – and last tournament – of her remarkable playing career, Williams overcame a shaky start to overwhelm Kovinic in straight sets.

Early, Williams was not at her best. There were double-faults. Other missed strokes, missed opportunities. She went up 2-0, but then quickly trailed 3-2. Then, suddenly, Williams, less than a month from turning 41, looked a lot more like someone with six championships at Flushing Meadows and 23 Grand Slam titles in all – numbers never exceeded by anyone in the professional era of tennis, which began in 1968.

She rolled through the end of that opening set, capping it with a service winner she reacted to with clenched fists and her trademark cry of ‘Come on!’ The more than 23,000 in attendance rose for a raucous standing ovation – and did so again when the 1-hour, 40-minute contest was over, celebrating as if another trophy had been earned.

Williams will continue to play now, facing No. 2 seed Anett Kontveit of Estonia on Wednesday.

And, there seems no doubt, they will come again to the US Open from far and wide for Serena – no last name required, befitting someone as much an icon as superstar athlete – eager to see her play or, if not lucky enough to hold the right ticket, hoping for an autograph, a glance at her practicing or merely the chance to breathe the same Flushing Meadows air as her.

As thousands waited in lines to enter the tournament grounds hours before her match, then headed to smaller courts for earlier action or simply milled around, waiting and wading in the palpable excitement, no one present could know for sure how many more opportunities there will be for any of it. Folks were there to watch, or just think about watching, Williams swing her racket.

And they were there to honor her and show appreciation for what she’s done on the court and off.

At about 6:15pm, Williams made the short walk to the practice courts beside Arthur Ashe Stadium for a half-hour hitting session to warm up. Folks packing the bleachers above the practice area greeted her with shrieks of ‘Serenaaaaa!’ on her way in, and again yelled on her way out, receiving a wave of her racket as acknowledgment before Williams strode, lips pursed, back into the stadium.

Former deputy chief of staff to former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Huma Abedin, attends Monday's match

Former deputy chief of staff to former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Huma Abedin, attends Monday’s match

Vera Wang looks on prior to the match between Serena Williams of the United States and Danika Kovinic of Montenegro

Vera Wang looks on prior to the match between Serena Williams of the United States and Danika Kovinic of Montenegro

Spike Lee made a pre-match appearance alongside Serena Williams at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday night

Spike Lee made a pre-match appearance alongside Serena Williams at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday night 

Fans cheer as Serena Williams of the United States walks onto the court prior to her Women's Singles First Round match against Danika Kovinic of Montenegro on Day One of the 2022 US Open at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Monday in Queens

Fans cheer as Serena Williams of the United States walks onto the court prior to her Women’s Singles First Round match against Danika Kovinic of Montenegro on Day One of the 2022 US Open at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Monday in Queens 

Actor Anthony Anderson is seen prior to the match between Serena Williams and Danka Kovinic of Montenegro

Actor Anthony Anderson is seen prior to the match between Serena Williams and Danka Kovinic of Montenegro

Lindsey Vonn reacts during Serena Williams' first-round win over Danka Kovinic of Montenegro on Day 1 of the US Open

Lindsey Vonn reacts during Serena Williams’ first-round win over Danka Kovinic of Montenegro on Day 1 of the US Open 

Mike Tyson shares a laugh with spectators at Monday's first-round match between Serena Williams and Danka Kovinic

Mike Tyson shares a laugh with spectators at Monday’s first-round match between Serena Williams and Danka Kovinic 

Fans hold a banner in reference to Serena Williams father, Richard Williams

Fans hold a banner in reference to Serena Williams father, Richard Williams

About 45 minutes after that, the match began and it was as clear as ever that she means a lot to a lot of people. As a tennis player. As a woman. As an African American. As a mother. As a businesswoman.

‘When she started out, female athletes weren’t getting recognized. She’s done so much,’ said Quintella Thorn, a 68-year-old from Columbus, Georgia, making her eighth trip to the U.S. Open. ‘And now, she’s …’

‘Evolving,’ chimed in Thorn’s friend, Cora Monroe, 72, of Shreveport, Louisiana, which she noted is where Richard Williams – the father of Serena and sister Venus, and the central figure in the Oscar-winning film ‘King Richard’ – is from, too.

That word, ‘evolving,’ is the one Williams said she preferred to the more commonly used ‘retirement’ when she wrote in an essay for Vogue released about three weeks ago that she was ready to concentrate on having a second child (her daughter, Olympia, turns 5 on Thursday) and her venture capital firm.

Olympia wore white beads in her hair on Monday, a nod to her mom’s hairstyle when she won her first U.S. Open in 1999 at age 17.

While Williams did not exactly declare that the U.S. Open definitively would be her last tournament – she also is entered in doubles with Venus, who is 42 and a seven-time major singles champ herself – she has made it sound as if it will be.

‘Once Serena announced she would play the U.S. Open, we sold out in a nanosecond for Monday night and Tuesday night. You can see on the secondary market, the get-in price is $230. I saw $5,800 for a courtside seat this evening. Look, this is a historic moment for the Williams family, for Serena and our sport,’ said Stacey Allaster, the tournament director of the American Grand Slam event. ‘It is so difficult to really capture what Serena and Venus have done for the sport of tennis. They have transformed our sport. They’ve made us more inclusive. And they’ve transcended sports.’

People hold up signs reading

People hold up signs reading ‘We love you Serena’ during a ceremony following her first-round win at the US Open

Actress Queen Latifah looks on during Serena Williams' first-round victory at the US Open on Monday night in Queens

Actress Queen Latifah looks on during Serena Williams’ first-round victory at the US Open on Monday night in Queens

Which is why Monday mattered more than the usual Day 1 at a major tournament. And why the daily program did not make mention of any other of the dozens of athletes in action, showing instead a montage of six images of Williams holding her six U.S. Open trophies above the title: ‘Serena Williams, A Legacy of Greatness.’ And why there was a sense of less importance for matches involving other elite players such as past U.S. Open champions Bianca Andreescu, Andy Murray, Daniil Medvedev and Dominic Thiem, or French Open finalist Coco Gauff, an 18-year-old American.

Kriti Kamath, a 9-year-old from Boston, toted an oversized yellow tennis ball in hopes of gathering some signatures – perhaps even after Williams’ planned pre-match hitting session in the evening, before her contest – as she walked outside Ashe with her mother, Neethor Shenoy.

Shenoy has told her daughter, who plays tennis, about Williams’ significance.

‘She’s very motivated. She’s very driven. And she’s an inspiration to all women; all colored women, particularly,’ Shenoy said. ‘She’s giving a kids a positive path to follow.’

Serena Williams of the United States is greeted by Billie Jean King after her victory on Monday night in Flushing, Queens

Serena Williams of the United States is greeted by Billie Jean King after her victory on Monday night in Flushing, Queens 

Mom said she’s been traveling from Boston to New York for the U.S. Open since 2004; this was Kriti’s first day of competition, but they were on site earlier in the week for ‘Fan Week.’ The U.S. Tennis Association said more than 90,000 free online passes were downloaded for that run-up to the main-draw action, an increase of more than 35% from the last pre-pandemic tournament in 2019.

The USTA said it sold more than 16,500 tickets for the tournament on the day Williams revealed her intentions, more than in the previous seven days combined. That included more than 4,600 for Monday night alone, making it a sellout.

Monroe and Thorn said they have tickets for both the daytime and nighttime sessions, which are sold separately, for each of the tournament’s initial three days.

On Monday, both were wearing blue T-shirts: Monroe’s was emblazoned with ‘Serena’ four times in different shades of purple; Thorn’s carried a black-and-white photo of Williams beside the words ‘Greatest Female Athlete’ – with ‘Female’ crossed out.

Monroe said she admires the Williams sisters ‘just for how they have carried themselves; they are an inspiration,’ and that she and Thorn couldn’t wait to be in the stadium for Williams vs. Kovinic.

‘Serena’s going to win tonight,’ Monroe said. ‘So we’ll see her Wednesday when she plays again.’

Alexis Ohanian, husband of Serena Williams, is seen prior to Serena's match agains Danka Kovinic of Montenegro

Alexis Ohanian, husband of Serena Williams, is seen prior to Serena’s match agains Danka Kovinic of Montenegro

The average resale ticket price for this year's US Open is up 68 percent to $512 since Williams' retirement announcement, according to ticketing and marketing analytics company, TicketIQ. Meanwhile, secondary-market ticket prices for Monday's first-round match spiked 300 percent, with the average ticket price hitting $987 — a record since TicketIQ began tracking the data in 2011

The average resale ticket price for this year’s US Open is up 68 percent to $512 since Williams’ retirement announcement, according to ticketing and marketing analytics company, TicketIQ. Meanwhile, secondary-market ticket prices for Monday’s first-round match spiked 300 percent, with the average ticket price hitting $987 — a record since TicketIQ began tracking the data in 2011

Serena Williams of the United States and Danika Kovinic of Montenegro pose for a picture prior to their match on Monday

Serena Williams of the United States and Danika Kovinic of Montenegro pose for a picture prior to their match on Monday

Lindsey Vonn arrives on Day One of the 2022 US Open at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Monday

Lindsey Vonn arrives on Day One of the 2022 US Open at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Monday

Williams isn’t retiring so much as reprioritizing.

As she recently told The Wall Street Journal from her luxury Manhattan hotel ahead of her final US Open, tennis is being minimized in favor of her five-year-old daughter, Olympia, and growing list of business interests, which have increasingly monopolized her time.

What she’s not doing — as she has maintained — is retiring.

‘I’m not retiring, I’m just evolving away from tennis and doing something else,’ the 40-year-old Williams told the Journal, echoing statements in Vogue earlier this month, when she announced her plans to leave the professional tour.

But while she’s refused to use the ‘R’ word to describe her transition, she isn’t completely against the idea. 

‘I probably should retire, for a few years at least, but for some inane reason I’m not,’ she said.

Currently, as any parent to a five-year-old can attest, her schedule centers around daughter Olympia. That means getting up with her at 7am, regardless of whether Williams is in training or not.

When asked about how Olympia impacts her routines, Williams said: ‘She totally threw a wrench in it, and it’s great.’

The hottest ticket in sports has given way to a star-studded crowd at New York's Arthur Ashe Stadium, where Vera Wang, Spike Lee, Rebel Wilson, Lindsey Vonn, Mike Tyson, Hugh Jackman, Anna Wintour and even Bill Clinton are all on hand for what could be the final match of Serena Williams ' illustrious career

The hottest ticket in sports has given way to a star-studded crowd at New York’s Arthur Ashe Stadium, where Vera Wang, Spike Lee, Rebel Wilson, Lindsey Vonn, Mike Tyson, Hugh Jackman, Anna Wintour and even Bill Clinton are all on hand for what could be the final match of Serena Williams ‘ illustrious career

Fans of Serena Williams cheer as she plays Danka Kovinic, of Montenegro, during the first round of the US Open

Fans of Serena Williams cheer as she plays Danka Kovinic, of Montenegro, during the first round of the US Open

New York Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor was on hand just down the street from where he does business at Citi Field

New York Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor was on hand just down the street from where he does business at Citi Field 

Alexis Olympia Ohanian, Jr., center, strikes a pose, with mom Serena Williams, right and dad Alexis Ohanian, on the red carpet of the 2021 AFI Fest Gala Premiere of, King Richard, at the TCL Chinese Theatre, in Hollywood, California, Sunday, November 14, 2021

Alexis Olympia Ohanian, Jr., center, strikes a pose, with mom Serena Williams, right and dad Alexis Ohanian, on the red carpet of the 2021 AFI Fest Gala Premiere of, King Richard, at the TCL Chinese Theatre, in Hollywood, California, Sunday, November 14, 2021

Even before becoming a mother, Williams was never big on breakfast, saying she’s never really hungry in the morning.

Things are changing somewhat now that husband and billionaire Reddit co-found Alexis Ohanian has bought the family a farm with some accompanying chickens.

‘So we got some chicks and they grew up and now they’re chickens and I had some of their eggs, and it was really good,’ Williams said.

After Olympia is settled in the morning, it’s time for the endless parade of calls and meetings that fill investors’ days.

‘Wake up and go to the office and now that everything went digital, just sit and take calls all day,’ Williams said. ‘Usually when Olympia goes to school, I just go to work. I work-work-work and then I usually pick her up from school.’

Williams has vast business interests, including her own venture capital firm, Serena Ventures, which raised a reported inaugural fund of $111 million last March. Furthermore, she and sister Venus are both minority owners of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, she’s part owner of a National Women’s Soccer League Team, and she has her own sustainable clothing line, S by Serena.

‘I like to invest in things where I believe in the founder,’ she told the Journal.

When asked for a piece of advice that has helped guide her, Williams said she always puts ‘God first’ and then ‘everything else falls into place.’

Serena Williams celebrates her first US Open title in 1999 after beating Martina Hingis

Serena Williams celebrates her first US Open title in 1999 after beating Martina Hingis

The decision to step away was inevitable for Williams, who has not won a major singles tournament since the 2017 Australian Open, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Were she a man, weighing business and competition would be much simpler.

‘Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family,’ she wrote earlier this month for Vogue. ‘I don’t think it’s fair. If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labor of expanding our family. Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity.

‘A lot of people don’t realize that I was two months pregnant when I won the Australian Open in 2017,’ she continued. ‘But I’m turning 41 this month, and something’s got to give.’

One unexpected problem on her way out the door: Progress.

Williams has struggled with age and injuries in recent years, but recently told Time that she feels she’s finally starting to hit her stride again.

‘I can see my improvement, and I’m like, Dang, I’ll be good in January,’ said Williams, who immediately dismissed the chance of playing in the 2023 Australian Open. ‘I’m not doing that.’

Realistically, another Australian Open just doesn’t fit into her life.

Williams wants to have another child with Ohanian, largely to give Olympia the camaraderie of a sibling.

‘When I look at Olympia, I’m really not performing at my peak, by not trying harder to give her that sibling,’ Williams told Time. Coming from a big family, and coming from five, there’s nothing better.’

In this file photo taken on January 12, 2020 Serena Williams of the US with her daughter Alexis Olympia after her win against Jessica Pegula of the US during their women's singles final match during the Auckland Classic tennis tournament in Auckland

In this file photo taken on January 12, 2020 Serena Williams of the US with her daughter Alexis Olympia after her win against Jessica Pegula of the US during their women’s singles final match during the Auckland Classic tennis tournament in Auckland

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