It was September 1999. Christina Aguilera and The Backstreet Boys dominated the music charts. Bruce Willis and The Sixth Sense were the talk of the cinemas, and SpongeBob SquarePants was in the middle of its very first season on Nickelodeon.
And in New York, as a Martina Hingis backhand sailed long at the US Open, a teenage Serena Williams won the first of her 23 Grand Slam singles titles. It was the first Major silverware of many in a career that has defied the odds from beginning to end, and which has crowned the younger Williams sister as a defining figure in world sport.
Now, as Serena Williams retires, this will be the last dance. A ball has yet to be struck at this year’s tournament in Flushing Meadows, and we already have the story for which it will be remembered. This is the final farewell for an icon who put the game of tennis on the map in extraordinary ways.
It’s a tale that would be unbelievable if it wasn’t true. Just ask Hollywood. Last year’s biopic, King Richard, which traced Serena’s and sister Venus’ rise through junior tennis under the stewardship of their father, brought this journey to life in vivid colour. Ever since she was a child prodigy learning her trade in Los Angeles and Florida, Serena has stamped her mark on tennis. And today, it’s impossible to talk about the sport without mentioning her name.
Let’s get the numbers out of the way first, because there are a lot. Serena has 23 Grand Slam singles titles, the most in the Open era. For 319 weeks she had the world #1 ranking, and twice she won a non-calendar year singles Grand Slam. She has a further 16 doubles Grand Slam–an often-forgotten statistic reflecting doubles’ marginalized status. She has four Olympic Gold Medals, and topped the Forbes earnings list for female athletes countless times.
The numbers, the accomplishments, the trophy hauls, everything is so vast that it’s difficult to process. Even without the extraordinary accolades, the very length of Serena’s career boggles the mind. Her first professional event was back in October 1995, when many of the women’s Top 10 were not even born. When current US Open champion Emma Raducanu was born in November 2002, Serena had already won four Majors.
But these numbers, as impressive as they are, barely scratch the surface of Serena’s influence on the game, an influence that will extend long beyond her retirement.
Serena was a protagonist in almost every rivalry that dominated the 2000s and much of the 2010s. She has given us the best comeback stories, those epic, exhilarating dramas that make us fall in love with sport. Undeniably, she is the standout character in women’s tennis over the last two decades. She has been titanic personality in an era where athletes’ lives are under incredible scrutiny. If it’s possible for someone to transcend their sport, well, Serena has come pretty close.
Finding a way to win
On the court, both Serena and Venus have shaped how modern tennis is played. While they perhaps didn’t invent the power-centered, baseline-dominated game, they certainly mastered it. Top players today dedicate themselves obsessively to physical training and fitness. In the early days of the Williams, this wasn’t the case. This was an era where players had grown up on the serve-and-volley style mastered by Martina Navratilova, and the all-court games of Steffi Graf and Monica Seles. Simply put, they weren’t prepared.
With their power and athleticism, the Williams sisters simply ground those styles into the dust. Legendary journalist Bud Collins referred to the Williams as “Sisters Sledgehammer,” a description that their rivals understood very well. All-court players couldn’t handle the Williams’ consistency and aggression, while serve-and-volley tennis was cannon fodder for their sheer power and movement. Then there’s the serve. For many women of that time, the serve was only the means to start the point. For Serena and Venus, the serve became a key weapon, just as it was for Pete Sampras on the men’s side. The serves came thundering down at 115mph, simply overwhelming the Williams’ contemporaries. They provided the blueprint of a modern game which many now emulate, but few replicate.
Even the great Martina Hingis, whose teenage career grew in parallel with the Williams’, could not withstand the rigors of such physical tennis. She wasn’t the only one either. As the WTA Tour adapted, the Williams faced competition from all sides. Think of Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport, Maria Sharapova, Kim Clijsters, and Justin Henin. They had their individual success, but none had the staying power of Serena and Venus. Many, notably Clijsters and Henin, suffered extensive injuries and even premature retirement, highlighting tennis’ new and brutal physicality.
But for all Serena’s physical gifts, it was the mental side of tennis, of which much is said but so little understood, that was her greatest weapon. Thanks to Hollywood, we all know about the trials and tribulations of her formative years. However, her career as an adult was no cakewalk either. She climbed the highest peaks of the sport, but also dug herself out of the lowest troughs. Over and over again, she showed the mental fortitude which has kept her on the WTA Tour for all this time.
Amid all the trophies, Serena was often troubled by injuries and depression, with dips in form that led many to write her off over and over. Hard as it is to believe now, as early as 2005, Serena was considered a declining force. After a rough end to 2006, long-time sponsors Nike were on the point of dropping her altogether. But after each stumbling block, no matter its severity, Serena always returned. She added silverware with such regularity that her extraordinary achievements started to seem routine. There was almost an inevitability about Serena as her career progressed. As a youngster, she would beat the veterans, and as a veteran, she would beat…well, everybody. No achievement, no record, was out of reach.
Serena as an icon
It’s not just the tennis that has made Serena so fascinating. It’s what she represents. A success story against a backdrop that seems so improbable and therefore so thrilling. The triumph of a working class African-American woman in a predominantly white, wealthy sport. Just like Tiger Woods–whose superstar trajectory in golf rose almost in parallel with the William sisters in tennis–Serena attracted the curiosity of new fans who otherwise weren’t interested in watching two people put a fuzzy yellow ball between a set of lines. It wasn’t just that Williams was there, but that she was really, really good.
More recently, after the birth of her daughter in 2017, Serena wrote a new chapter with her post-motherhood career. Some years removed from her physical prime, Serena was no longer the indestructible tennis machine of 2002, 2010, or 2015. Instead, she was a mother first who played tennis second, and was still pretty handy, to say the least. Her challenge of becoming the first mother since Kim Clijsters to win a Major was enthralling, further cementing her position as a women’s role model who could draw an audience interested in something beyond a mere sport.
Of course, Williams’ unique status came with depressingly familiar problems. The most infamous incident took place in Indian Wells in 2001. Amid murmurings that Richard Williams influenced his daughters’ results when they played each other, Venus had withdrawn at short notice from a semifinal against Serena due to injury. Before Serena’s final against Clijsters–which she went on to win–the whole Williams family was subjected to boos and racial abuse from the California crowd.
Serena described the scene in her 2009 autobiography, On the Line: “What got me most of all was that it wasn’t just a scattered bunch of boos. It wasn’t coming from just one section.
“I looked up and all I could see was a sea of rich people–mostly older, mostly white—standing and booing lustily, like some kind of genteel lynch mob.”
As a result, both sisters went on to boycott the tournament for more than a decade. But when Serena did return in 2015–to a standing ovation–she described the moment as one of the greatest in her career. She made it to the semifinals that year.
That incident and her return symbolizes Serena’s career in so many ways. It is the triumph over adversity, the victory even during huge challenges. Her career on and off the tennis court is an example in itself. Serena and Venus have proven that there’s a journey to the top for everyone–that while it’s difficult, it’s not impossible. As Serena Williams retires, that, more than any number of titles, may be her greatest legacy.
Main Photo from Getty.