NEW YORK — It was the thrill of a young lifetime for 17-year-old Caty McNally.
"I couldn't have asked for anything better," the Madeira teen said afterward. "It was just an unbelievable experience, something that I'll never forget for the rest of my life."
There she was, playing the greatest women's tennis player of all time, Serena Williams, on the Arthur Ashe Stadium court in the U.S. Open during prime time Wednesday night.
"I walked out there and I had the chills," McNally said. "That was the most insane atmosphere. I've never played on a court nowhere near that big, especially a night match."
The moment could have crushed another young player, but McNally rose to the occasion and won the first set before Williams rebounded from a mistake-filled start to win the second-round match, 5-7, 6-3, 6-1.
"When I went out there, I just worried about myself, but obviously I knew I was playing against the greatest of all time," McNally said. "I knew that I had to bring a certain level. I'm really just happy with the way I overall played, the way I carried myself out on that stage."
The 37-year-old Williams saluted McNally, twice her junior, after the match.
"She had no fear," Williams said.
McNally not only showed off her tennis skills - TV analyst and tennis great Chris Evert praised her throughout the match - but the teen also won many fans in the stadium with her performance and poise.
At the start, the crowd was solidly behind the 37-year-old Williams, who won the first of her six U.S. Open championships in 1999 - two years before McNally was born. But as McNally excelled and Williams struggled in the first set, the teen waved her arms, trying to get the spectators to cheer for her.
And many in the crowd responded.
First, McNally converted her only break point of the match to lead 6-5. Then she served out the set despite falling behind love-40, erasing three break points and hitting a 103-mph service winner to seal it.
"First set was unbelievable tennis," McNally said. "I played really well, served really solid. Second and third set, she obviously picked up her level. That was pretty tough for me."
Williams, who owns 23 Grand Slam singles titles, found her groove and dominated the rest of the way.
"I knew that was going to happen,” McNally said. “Next time, I just have to raise my level with hers.”
Williams rallied by dispensing with the serves out wide that McNally was handling well and reducing her mistakes from 15 unforced errors in the first set, to 11 in the second to two in the third.
McNally's mother said she wasn't surprised that Caty stayed cool under the pressure. She reminded interviewers that her daughter had won the junior doubles title here last year with her more famous partner, 15-year-old Coco Gauff, and that Caty played singles at Wimbledon this year.
“She’s young. It’s her first time in a stage like this and only her second Grand Slam, so I think there’s a lot to gain from it,” said Lynn Nabors-McNally, who also helps coach her. “It’s a great stepping stone to a lot of things.”
McNally, ranked 121st in the world, had never won a singles match at any major tournament until Monday's 6-4, 6-1 first-round victory over Timea Bacsinszky of Switerzerland. McNally received a wild-card invitation to the Open from the U.S. Tennis Association, but she showed she deserved it.
"It just shows I'm capable of playing with the best. I got a set off Serena Williams," McNally exclaimed. "Had her close in the second set, too.
"It just gives me a lot of confidence, shows me that I can compete out on the biggest stages. I'm ready to go back to work."
McNally is not finished at the U.S. Open. She and Gauff are in the main doubles draw this year and play Friday. They picked up the first WTA trophy by winning the doubles title at the Citi Open in Washington this month. McNally also reached her first tour-level semifinal in singles at that hard-court tournament.