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Serena Williams might be making her last appearance at the U.S. Open Championships

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The U.S. Open Tennis Championships begin today in New York. And they're a much bigger deal than usual. It could be the last hurrah for Serena Williams, who announced her imminent retirement earlier this month. Williams is one of those transcendent stars in sports. She's won 23 Grand Slam singles titles and made power tennis a standard in the women's game. Her first-round match is tonight. And NPR's Tom Goldman will be there. Good morning, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: Hi. So who does Williams play? And how do you think the match is going to go?

GOLDMAN: She plays Danka Kovinic, a 27-year-old from Montenegro with a big serve and not much experience in matches like this, with nearly every tennis and sports fan in the world watching. She's ranked 80th in the world, which doesn't sound like much. But consider Williams, who was out recovering from injury until just a couple of months ago. Her ranking has plummeted to 605th.

FADEL: Whoa.

GOLDMAN: No idea how the match will end, but a good bet both will be nervous at the start. We'll see who can shake the anxiety first.

FADEL: I'm sorry - 605th?

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) Yeah.

FADEL: I mean, that's stunning considering Williams has dominated women's tennis for so long. Even I know that. And you know how much I know about sports, Tom.

GOLDMAN: A lot. Yeah.

FADEL: A lot. What are the chances she could recapture that dominance and make a run in New York?

GOLDMAN: Well, you know, certainly, it's what her legions of fans are hoping. But really, it's a long shot. She has not played well since returning to competition in June. She's almost 41. She doesn't move around the court like she once did. And opponents aren't intimidated like they were during her reign. But New York is a special place for her, where - it's where she won her first Grand Slam singles title in 1999. And she won six U.S. Opens altogether. So maybe there's some magic left. We'll see.

FADEL: We'll see. So since announcing her retirement or, as she likes to call it, evolving away from tennis, there's been so much talk about Serena Williams' legacy. What has she meant to tennis and sports?

GOLDMAN: So very much. With her powerful serve and return of serve and athleticism, she really set that standard in the women's game. Her story of the early years in Compton, Calif., with sister Venus under the tutelage of their dad, King Richard, now of movie fame...

FADEL: Right.

GOLDMAN: You know, that all became part of her legend and paved the way for more young people of color to pursue what had traditionally been a white sport. And she brought more people of color into the stands to watch as well. Longtime tennis writer Gerry Marzorati wrote a great book called "Seeing Serena." He compares her to legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, as an athlete of great consequence beyond her sport. Here he is.

GERRY MARZORATI: She brought a kind of strength and power and attitude, particularly as a Black woman, to tennis that really had not been seen before. She imposed herself on her opponents. But she also imposed herself on the culture.

FADEL: Now, you mentioned sister Venus, Venus Williams. They've been inseparable over the years. Venus and Serena became part of tennis lexicon. They've also been a hugely successful doubles team, 14 grand slam titles. And they're going to play at the U.S. Open. Is this open going to be a celebration of Venus, too?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, I think so. It's a good point. You know, as strong and dominant as Serena has become, she always saw herself following in her sister's footsteps. Venus was it growing up. And Serena emulated her and, of course, past her. But Venus has had a fantastic career of her own, seven Grand Slam singles titles. She has hinted at age 42 she may keep going past this U.S. Open.

FADEL: NPR's Tom Goldman in New York City. Thanks, Tom.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDERSON .PAAK SONG, "WINNERS CIRCLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.