Aug 29, 2022; Flushing, NY, USA; Serena Williams of the USA hits to Danka Kovinic of Montenegro on day one of the 2022 U.S. Open Tennis Tournament at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

For the last few decades Serena Williams has been one of the biggest stars in sports, not just in tennis. With the ongoing U.S. Open likely the final tournament of her career, every match could be the last chance to see Serena take the court.

Viewers responded in kind for ESPN’s first night of coverage, which included Serena’s 6-3, 6-3 victory over Danka Kovinić.

From ESPN’s release:

Monday night’s US Open Opening Night match with the legendary Serena Williams – in what is expected to be her final event and defeating Danka Kovinic of Montenegro in a first-round contest 6-3, 6-3 – averaged 2.7 million viewers glued to the drama for the 1:45 match. The audience peaked in the last quarter-hour (9 – 9:15 p.m. ET) at 3.2 million.

  • The network averaged an ESPN first-day record of 1.7 million viewers for PrimeTime at the US Open presented by IBM (7 p.m. – 12:03 a.m. ET), an increase of 279% — nearly four-fold – over last year and up 40% over the previous high in 2019.
  • The afternoon window on ESPN (noon – 7 p.m.) averaged the best for ESPN since its first year with exclusivity and first-ball-to-last-ball coverage in 2015 (680,000) with 626,000 viewers, up 44% from 2021.
  • Combined, the total day average of 843,000 viewers was better than 2019’s previous best of 809,000 by 4%.

Beyond television, Monday was the most-trafficked US Open Opening Day for ESPN Digital Properties on record, two million unique users.

The year-over-year increases for the opening day tell the story. Sports Media Watch highlighted the differences, noting that the numbers for Serena’s match were at or above last year’s pair of U.S. Open finals:

Monday’s primetime coverage of the US Open averaged 1.75 million viewers on ESPN, including 2.7 million for Serena Williams’ victory over Danka Kovinic — up 279% from last year and easily the largest opening round audience since ESPN began airing the tournament in 2009. The previous high was 1.24 million in 2019.

Viewership for Williams’ match — which peaked with 3.2 million from 9-9:15 PM ET — was on par with last year’s Emma Raducanu-Leylah Fernandez women’s final (~2.7M*) and comfortably ahead of last year’s Daniil Medvedev-Novak Djokovic men’s final (~2.2M*).

When it comes to saying goodbye to a legend, tennis always presents an interesting forum. Serena is a heavy underdog to win the whole thing, although it’s never smart to count her out completely. That said, there’s every chance her career could come to an end against a random opponent on a random night, especially when her draw means her second round opponent is #2 seed Anett Kontaveit.

If you want to see her final match, and there’s plenty of data to suggest that there’s a large audience out there who would like to do just that, you might have to tune in every night she’s playing. Assuming people do that on a similar level to night one, ESPN could be riding a solid ratings wave for as long as Serena can keep it going.

We’ll have our next data point there on Wednesday, when Williams takes on Kontaveit in a match scheduled for 7 PM ET.

[Sports Media Watch]

About Jay Rigdon

Jay is a columnist at Awful Announcing. He is not a strong swimmer. He is probably talking to a dog in a silly voice at this very moment.