NEW YORK — Here, Serena Williams won her maiden Grand Slam victory 23 years ago. Friday, she addressed her farewells at Arthur Ashe Stadium in front of a sold-out audience.
“Thank you, father; I know you’re observing. Thank you, mother, “Williams stated before beginning to cry during her post-match interview on the court. “Everyone who is present and who has been on my side for so many years, decades…
“I suppose these are happy tears. I’m not sure. And without Venus, I would not be Serena, so thank you, Venus. She is the sole reason Serena Williams exists… It has been an enjoyable journey. It has been the most amazing ride and tour I have ever experienced.”
It was a fitting conclusion for one of the most renowned champions in sports.
In an essay published in Vogue last month, Williams, 40, announced her desire to retire after the US Open. Since then, Williams has received a hero’s farewell in her matches. She acknowledged that she had conflicting thoughts about the decision and that she understood it would be difficult to leave the sport that had largely defined her life.
She stated, “I don’t want it to end, but I’m also ready for what comes next.” “I don’t know how I’ll be able to look at this magazine once it’s published, knowing that this is the end of a tale that began in Compton, California, with a young Black girl who simply wanted to play tennis. This sport has provided me with so much.”
As young girls with a dream, Venus and her older sister Venus began training on public courts near their home with their father, Richard. Today, Serena is perhaps the greatest tennis player in history and one of the most successful athletes of all time.
She began her professional career at the age of 14 in 1995. Williams will retire in 2022 with 858 tour victories, 73 singles titles, an Olympic gold medal, and 319 weeks atop the rankings. She won 14 major doubles titles and three Olympic gold medals with Venus. Williams’ record of 23 majors is the highest of any player, male or female, in the Open Era.
Roger Federer told the Wall Street Journal in 2018 that it had been intriguing to observe. “I grew up in Switzerland with the federation, whereas Serena was raised by her father and sister. She went on to become one of the finest, if not the greatest tennis player in history.”
But victories and records only tell part of the story. Despite her remarkable success, Williams will be remembered for the way she and Venus forever altered the sport.
Coco Gauff stated last month that no other tennis player is likely to be able to match Serena Williams’ tennis legacy. “I believe that the legacy she will continue to make throughout her life will be able to inspire many generations to come.
“I grew up observing her. In other words, this is the reason why I play tennis. As tennis is a primarily white sport, the fact that I saw someone who resembled me winning the game was extremely beneficial. It made me believe I could also dominate.”
Numerous African-American athletes, including Gauff, Naomi Osaka, Taylor Townsend, and Frances Tiafoe, credit the sisters for their interest and entry into a sport that was originally virtually exclusively played by whites. There had been other Black players before Venus and Serena, including legends Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, but there were not many, and the junior and recreational levels had few Black players.
Today, Williams is leaving the sport in an altogether different situation, with 12 of the 32 American women in the main draw of the 2020 US Open identifying as Black, and three of the top five ranked American junior women identifying as non-white.
Martin Blackman, the general manager of player development for the USTA, stated that the data demonstrate the Williams sisters’ immense effect. As a former Black player, he fully comprehends this issue.
In 1975, Blackman began playing tennis after hearing a radio broadcast of Arthur Ashe’s victory over Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon. “I do not believe that my family would have begun playing tennis if not for that influence and inspiration. Two women who entered the sport as outsiders and two women who are departing tennis as a sport that includes everyone are, in my opinion, their greatest legacy.
It is fantastic how they have opened up the sport and attracted people of all backgrounds and colors.
The victories came swiftly for Serena and Venus. The couple won their first Grand Slam doubles victory together at the 1999 French Open, and Serena won her first major singles triumph at the US Open later that year at the age of 17, defeating Kim Clijsters, Conchita Martinez, Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport, and Martina Hingis, among others.
Serena Williams’ performance in New York astounded the world and her peers, even though her game was still developing and appeared to be improving with each match.
Kathy Rinaldi, who has worked with both Serena and Venus as part of the U.S. Billie Jean King Cup team and competed against the two in Serena’s debut US Open doubles match in 1997, commented on Serena’s athleticism, power, and tenacity, as well as how she handled the pressure.
However, living on the tour was at times challenging for both sisters, who were two of only a handful of Black professional athletes. Blackman stated that the television commentary during their matches “wasn’t fantastic,” and their enmity was on full show during a 2001 incident at Indian Wells that has since become iconic. After Venus upset Elena Dementieva to set up a semifinal match with Serena, Dementieva accused Richard of orchestrating matches between the two sisters. The remark gained popularity after Venus withdrew from the semifinals due to a knee ailment shortly before the match was scheduled to begin.
A few days later, as Richard and Venus sat down to watch Serena play Clijsters in the final, the audience began to boo loudly. Throughout the entirety of the match, the spectators directed their ire toward Serena. Even after Serena had won the match, the antagonism continued, and the nasty spectacle reached its peak when she attempted to embrace Richard and Venus.
Richard later reported that he was the focus of multiple racial comments during the entire contest. In a public boycott, neither sister participated in the competition for well over a decade.
“More than the victories and how they dominated, it is the challenges and obstacles that both Serena and Venus encountered and overcame that make them icons and trailblazers,” added Townsend. “For players like myself, Coco, Sloane [Stephens], and Madison [Keys], we haven’t dealt with as many issues because they have previously been resolved. They endured a great deal of mockery and public humiliation, but they persevered, and I appreciate the things that we now take for granted.
“Not only did they allow me to accomplish what I do because of what they’ve been through, but they also made it possible for me to be accepted in this sport. It’s not perfect now, and we all still understand it in our ways, but it’s drastically different from when they first began.”
And despite the obstacles, Serena Williams persisted. She was the reigning winner of all four Grand Slam tournaments at the same time, having won the previous three major titles in 2002 and the Australian Open in 2003, earning her the moniker “Serena Slam.” In July 2002, she also ascended to the top spot for the first time.
Williams was one of the most well-rounded players in the game, but her serve became her most effective weapon and what set her apart from the competition. Pam Shriver noted in a 2002 ESPN piece, “Serena is the best server I’ve witnessed since Steffi Graf was serving her best.”
On and off the court, her popularity grew. Williams became a fashion star as a result of her spectacular match attire, none more so than her faux-leather catsuit in the 2002 U.S. Open. She also appeared on magazine covers and received countless endorsements. In 2003, she claimed a $55 million endorsement agreement with Nike was the highest ever for a female athlete.
While the victories and celebrity lifestyle may have appeared smooth, there were obstacles along the road. During Williams’ 2009 US Open semifinal match against Clijsters, there was a highly criticized outburst directed at a line judge, which was followed by a prompt apology by Williams. Between 2010 and 2011, a foot injury and a life-threatening blood clot sidelined her for over a year.
Despite the health concern, she quickly recovered. In 2012, Williams won Wimbledon and the US Open, as well as her first and only Olympic singles gold medal. In doing so, she became the first tennis player to achieve a “Golden Slam” in both singles and doubles throughout her career. There was a second “Serena Slam” in 2014-2015, and she nearly achieved the elusive Calendar Slam in 2015 before losing in the US Open semifinals.
Simona Halep, a two-time major champion, remarked on Williams’ domination and what set her apart: “The power, the confidence, the way of playing to be aggressive, to stay near to the baseline, and to make so many wins.” “Also, the serve, which was sometimes unreachable, and the desire, the want to win every ball.”
Williams found she was pregnant just before 2017 Australian Open and won the title after receiving medical permission. Serena defeated Venus in the final for the eighth time with a Grand Slam trophy at stake, claiming her 23rd and final major title. Later, Venus quipped that the match was unfair because it was “truly two vs one.”
Her past with blood clots was both life-threatening and maybe life-saving during the September 2017 birth of her daughter Olympia, which ended up being complex. After delivery, Serena recognized the signs and was able to inform the medical staff of a possible pulmonary embolism.
While Williams claims she was first ignored, a blood clot was ultimately located in her lungs. To raise awareness about the high prevalence of maternal mortality and complications among Black women, she has candidly described her several operations, terrifying moments, and six weeks of excruciating bed rest.
“When I initially arrived home, I was unable to walk down the driveway,” Williams wrote for Elle. When I eventually reached a tree midway down the driveway, it was a significant obstacle for me.
Six months later, Williams once again accomplished the impossible and returned to the tennis court. In March of 2018, she returned to competition in Indian Wells and advances to the third round before losing to Venus.
Before Williams’ maternity hiatus, it was almost probable that she would tie and possibly surpass Margaret Court’s historic record for most Grand Slam singles championships, and she spent no time upon her return attempting to accomplish the feat. In 2018, she reached the finals of two major tournaments, Wimbledon and the US Open, but lost both, including a contentious battle versus Osaka in New York. Despite not winning a major prize in 2018, Serena was awarded Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press and Sportswoman of the Year by Laureus.
Two more finals were held in 2019 at Wimbledon and the US Open, however, she was unable to go past the 23rd round.
Serena stated in her Vogue column, “I would be lying if I claimed I didn’t want that record.” “I do. However, I rarely think about her daily. If I am in the Grand Slam final, then I do consider that record. Perhaps I thought about it too much, which was ineffective. According to my estimation, I should have won over thirty Grand Slams.
“I had opportunities after returning from delivering birth. I endured a C-section, a second pulmonary embolism, and a Grand Slam final after a C-section. I was playing while nursing. I used music to combat postpartum depression. But I did not arrive. Should’ve, could’ve, would’ve I did not perform as well as I could have or should have. However, I showed up 23 times, which is acceptable. It is remarkable.”
However, despite her inability to break the record, her desire to participate and clear passion for the sport reverberated far beyond the tennis court. And for other athletes, it demonstrated that having a child does not equal the end of a career.
“Before, women had to give up their jobs to have a family, but the more examples you have of women doing it all and juggling all the hats, the more realistic it seems,” said Townsend, who had her son in 2021 and returned to the tour this year. “Not only did Serena return, but she also reached four Slam finals. She convinced me that I could return as well. If you see [something] for yourself, you will believe it.”
Serena has become a successful entrepreneur with many firms and profitable collaborations, including her venture capital firm that finances initiatives by underrepresented creators. Despite playing a reduced schedule in 2021, she remained in the top two of the world’s highest-paid female athletes, second only to Osaka. While Serena and Venus were initially criticized for having off-court interests earlier in their careers — former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash famously questioned her dedication and called Serena a “lost cause” in a newspaper column in 2007 — it is now the norm for athletes, and the majority of the top women’s tennis players are involved in a variety of other endeavors.
“Not only did Serena and Venus open the door for Black players, but now they’re opening it in so many avenues, from clothing design to venture capital, and they’re kicking that door wide open,” said Megan Bradley-Rose, a biracial former professional tennis player and the managing director of major events for the USTA. “They continue to perform laborious tasks and blaze this path for everyone. When you see someone who likes you or comes from a similar background do anything, it encourages you to believe that it is feasible for you to do the same.”
Already a minority owner of the National Women’s Soccer League’s Angel City FC and the National Football League’s Miami Dolphins, Williams will have other options after retirement to expand her empire and businesses. She stated in her post that she and her husband Alexis Ohanian intended to have another child shortly.
Williams will be considered the greatest tennis player of all time for years to come, as it will be difficult, if not impossible, to recreate her domination throughout her 27-year career.
But it has always been about more than just achievements and titles, and her legacy will continue to be an integral part of the Williams sisters’ journey. Venus, 42, has not officially said when she will retire, but an era is certainly coming to a close.
Stacey Allaster, once the head and CEO of the WTA and currently the US Open tournament director, remarked, “I can’t think of two sisters who are more dedicated and united in supporting each other than the two of them.” “It is remarkable to see such dedication to one another. They are now two independent adults with separate lives, yet it is difficult to envision one without the other from a tennis standpoint.
“It is an unbelievable tale that no one could have written. Two Black ladies and their families contributed to the disruption of our sport. We owe them a great deal, and it is our responsibility to continue to make the sport more inclusive and preserve their legacy.”