On the eve of a US Open that could cement Serena Williams as one of the greatest American athletes, she returned to the catacombs under Arthur Ashe Stadium in a casual jersey top and drawstring pants -- relaxed and confident.
She knows the court, just a few feet above her, very well; it's the place where she started tallying majors as a teenager back in 1999.
"It's the biggest stadium for a tennis player in the world, and it's the biggest stage in the world in New York," Williams said. "It doesn't get any bigger or better than this."
Ashe, now enveloped in the steel framework of a developing roof, opened in 1997 and Serena made her US Open debut the following year. The court and the player have grown up together, their legacies directly intertwined.
Indeed, Williams has played some great matches on Arthur Ashe, but perhaps none more impactful than the 2001 final. That afternoon glowed a late-summer golden yellow, as celebrities such as Diana Ross, Billie Jean King and Joe Namath filed into the stadium in anticipation of an all-Williams US Open final. For years, the women's final had been squished into the halftime act of two men's semifinals, but in 2001 all that was about to change, thanks in part to the star power generated by Serena and Venus Williams.
Arlen Kantarian was the USTA's CEO of professional tennis at the time, a former NFL and Radio City Music Hall executive, and he wanted to bring some of the glitz of the NFL's Super Bowl to the US Open. He spearheaded a campaign to give the women their own stage in prime time, convincing CBS to do it given the popularity of, you guessed it, the Williams sisters.
That championship isn't one of Serena Williams' 21 Grand Slam singles titles, but it may have been one of the most historic nights she spent in Ashe -- a night when the women's game was given status, and its own ticket. The 69-minute match wasn't all that great, either -- Venus won 6-2, 6-4 -- but the ratings were higher for the match than for a Notre Dame-Nebraska football game in the same broadcast window.
"We took a shot and it worked out," Kantarian said. "Venus and Serena Williams have done more to propel women's tennis -- and they continue to do it today."
Now, Serena Williams comes into this US Open with the possibility of winning the first true Grand Slam since Steffi Graf did it in 1988. And she would do it on the same court where she's made so much history against generations of players -- she has a 74-9 record on Ashe -- from her win against Martina Hingis in 1999, to toppling Caroline Wozniacki last year.
"She's had an interesting run on Ashe and it's going to top it all if she gets the Slam," Kantarian said.
New York is the place where Serena Williams has always seemed to fit. Venus had Wimbledon, where her quiet elegance matched the spirit of the event, while Serena has the raucous Open, where her ebullience and personality have had free rein for better or, in a few moments, for worse.
In 2009 she lost a semifinal to Kim Clijsters after an altercation with a linesperson. Williams was called for a foot fault, and angrily responded that she would shove a tennis ball down the linesperson's throat. Ultimately Williams lost that match and was fined $175,000.
Two years later, Williams lost to Samantha Stosur in the final after losing a controversial point for "deliberate hindrance," yelling "Come on!" after crushing a forehand.
Williams was responsible for expediting instant replay at the US Open after her 2004 quarterfinal loss to Jennifer Capriati. Kantarian was in charge at the time, and said Williams couldn't have been more gracious when she came in the next day to talk about bad line calls.
"That call against Capriati really inspired the tennis world to bring on instant replay -- certainly us at the Open," Kantarian said.
But more often, Williams' matches on Ashe have been more about competition than controversy.
A couple of her more epic showdowns were the two three-set wins over Victoria Azarenka for the 2012 and 2013 championships. The first match took 138 minutes and left Azarenka masking her emotions with a towel.
"This is probably the most challenging place to play, the US Open finals against Serena," Azarenka said, possibly gritting her teeth. "So for me it's really exciting [and] something that gets me going every time."
And until the Belarusian was injured, Azarenka was one of the few players active in the latter stages of Serena's career who could consistently challenge her. Last year's final pitted Williams against her friend Wozniacki, and it was all Williams 6-3, 6-3.
"I think it was special for both of us," Wozniacki said. "I think we were both nervous going into the final. You know, she was better than me that day, and that's really it."
Azarenka is returning to form but, with so much on the line, can anyone keep Williams from her seventh US Open title and the calendar Grand Slam? This summer in Queens she has a quarter packed with Americans: Sloane Stephens, CoCo Vandeweghe, Madison Keys and, most notably, her sister Venus.
This year, the stadium is a work in progress, part chrysalis and part construction site. Meanwhile, Williams is defying expectations at age 33 -- with eight of her 21 majors in the past three-plus years. At her Thursday news conference, Williams said if she doesn't win this year, she'll be back next year to try all over again under the completed Arthur Ashe frame.
"I know people are in awe of what she's done in the past," Kantarian said, "but everyone is interested in seeing what she's going to do in the future."