The curtain is about to fall on Serena Williams’ magnificent career, and it is time to reflect on not only one of the most successful, but also one of the most important figures in tennis and sports history.
The rise and subsequent dominance of Williams and her sister Venus forced tennis to confront, not always willingly, its attitudes toward race and strong women.
There has never been a tennis champion like Williams, and there may never be again. The 40-year-old, who is expected to hang up the racket after the US Open later this month, is the owner of 23 Grand Slam singles titles, the most in the Open Era, and 39 Slam titles overall.
That she has achieved such success despite serious health problems, struggles with fitness and motivation and, not least, a year-long break to have her first child, makes her story all the more remarkable.
It’s a story that’s often been told, but perhaps still undersold. Tennis is very familiar with the narrative of the driven parent who sees the lucrative opportunities in a tennis career for their offspring, but no one has done it better than Richard Williams.
And it is to the credit of all three of them that they remain close despite everything that has played out over the past two decades.
Venus and Serena are only 15 months apart, and the sisters’ relationship is at the center of Serena’s life and career.
She delighted in being the spoiled baby of the family and followed Venus in everything, including picking up a tennis racket and learning the ropes on glass-strewn courts in Compton, California.
The dynamic has played out throughout their professional careers, with Venus leading the way but quickly overtaken by Serena, the younger sister’s determination to have things her way, making her a fierce and sometimes controversial competitor.
While Venus was the stately, calm presence on court, Serena gesticulated, roared, screamed—and won, beating opponents out of sheer will when her tennis misfired.
Serena was the first of the pair to win a Slam singles title, at the US Open in 1999, a couple of weeks before her 18th birthday.
The excitement surrounding the sisters was immense, but as they became the dominant forces in the women’s game, tennis became less welcoming.
Venus and Serena didn’t just look different, their brand of athletic power tennis shook up the sport and forced their rivals to try to match it.
“Home” support was far from guaranteed in America, and the most shameful episode came at Indian Wells in 2001 when fans booed Serena after suspecting foul play in Venus’ withdrawal before a semi-final showdown with her sister. Venus and Richard said they were racially abused in the stands.
The sisters boycotted the event for more than a decade and gossip that the outcome of matches between them was predetermined persisted for years.
The 2018 US Open final will not be remembered as Serena’s finest hour, but looking around the stadium, the impact she has had on tennis was unmistakable.
This was not a picture of tennis as a white middle-class sport. The diverse crowd had come to worship at the queen’s altar and were so hostile in their reaction to referee Carlos Ramos’ decision to issue three code violations that he had to be escorted off the pitch before the presentation ceremony.
The defeat to Naomi Osaka was one of four Slam finals that Williams lost as a mother as she tried, and ultimately failed, to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 Slam singles titles.
Serena’s tally is considered the most impressive, as 11 of Court’s titles came in Australia when the event was historically much weaker.
After her first title in 1999, Serena had to wait almost three years for another, but two quickly became five when she swept all four Slams between the French Open in 2002 and the Australian Open in 2003, calling the feat the “Serena Slam”.
Melbourne Park and Wimbledon would prove to be her most successful venues, winning seven titles at each followed by six at Flushing Meadows and three at Roland Garros.
She completed the Serena Slam for the second time in 2014 and 2015, and narrowly missed out on the Calendar Grand Slam in 2015 when she fell to a shock loss to Roberta Vinci in the US Open semifinals.
After her 30th birthday, and after losing in the first round of a Slam for the first time at the 2012 French Open, Williams turned to French coach Patrick Mouratoglou and began the most dominant period of her career, winning 10 Slams in four and a year and a half before daughter Olympia was born in 2017.
The previous decade had been much more up and down, with Williams’ successes interspersed with long absences. In 2006, a mix of injuries, depression and loss of motivation saw her ranking drop to 139th.
When she won the Australian Open the following year, she was ranked 81, out of shape and reportedly on the verge of being dropped by Nike. Spurred on by the critics, she lost just three games to Maria Sharapova in the final.
Her 2010 Wimbledon title celebrations, meanwhile, turned sour when she badly cut her foot and then suffered a life-threatening pulmonary embolism, putting her out of action for nearly a year.
The pulmonary embolisms returned after a difficult birth, and what she achieved on the field afterward was even more impressive given the life-threatening complications that left her bedridden.
Apart from tennis, Serena has always pursued her interests, particularly in fashion, philanthropic work in Africa and, more recently, her investment company Serena Ventures which has gained in importance.
She and Venus founded the Yetunde Price Resource Center in memory of their slain half-sister to help families affected by violence in Compton, while Serena has found a growing political voice on black and gender rights and, after the birth of Olympia, as a mother.
It is her desire to have a second child that has convinced Serena the time has come to wave goodbye to a sport that will forever remember her as one of the greatest, a month before her 41st birthday.
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