There are regular tennis players, there are exceptional tennis players, and then there is Serena Williams, who recently announced her “evolution” from tennis. She retires after an illustrious career which saw her playing in four separate decades and accumulating 23 Grand Slam singles titles. Between winning her first Grand Slam title in 1999 and her retirement, Williams morphed from tennis upstart to tennis superstar and finally to a global icon. Williams is the underdog who became the top dog. With her forthcoming exit from the tennis scene after the US Open, now is an appropriate time to pay tribute to the most deserving of athletes.
Williams is not just a tennis champion; she is a black tennis player that dominated the lily-white tennis scene for more than 20 years. Her blackness stood up whenever she was placed against what US filmmaker Zora Neale Hurston calls the “sharp white background” of Wimbledon with its white clothes, white players, white royalty and white spectators. Williams embodies black excellence and black pride, bringing pride to black people worldwide, especially black women. There is a kindred spirit, as many black women like Williams have to deal with the twin evils of racism and sexism.
One trait that separates Williams from her peers is her resilience in facing adversity. Despite facing the headwinds of racism, sexism, ill-health, pregnancy, naysayers, body shaming, hostile crowds, biased officiating, match points, ageing and grief, Williams overcame these obstacles to etch her sculpture into the granite face of tennis Mount Rushmore.
At the beginning of her career, Williams and her sister faced criticism for how they rushed to the net, how they walked, the beads they wore on their head, the clothes they wore and the parents they had. Then, as she became more successful, her body became subject to the intense white gaze of white tennis officials, white media and white players.
Ill health couldn’t stop Williams. During the 2015 French Open, the media revealed that she had been battling the flu from the third round. Despite her sickness, she captured her third French Open title. In 2006, Williams battled depression, which saw her take a six-month break. The following year, an unseeded Williams won the Australian Open. Williams had a near-death experience in March 2011 when she suffered a hematoma and a pulmonary embolism. Within three years after making a full recovery, Williams won four grand slam singles titles and two Olympic gold medals. Besides defying medicine, she even defied biology when she captured the 2017 Australian Open while she was eight to nine weeks pregnant.
Throughout her career, she has proven her doubters wrong. For example, 18 times Grand Slam winner Chris Evert penned an open letter to Williams in May 2006 where she asked whether Williams considered her place in history. In an article titled “Williams is lost cause” written days before she won the 2007 Australian Open, Pat Cash suggested Williams was delusional and wrote: “Serena Williams will never return to the top again.” Despite the multitude of naysayers, Williams dug deep to prove them wrong.
With her retirement from the courts, now is an appropriate time to make a case for her being the Greatest of All Time (GOAT). This GOAT title is justified for several reasons, including dominating the game, changing the game, transcending the game, changing the rules, defying age, name recognition and resilience.
Serena Williams, along with her sister, elevated professionalism within the sports. They introduced a fitness level that changed how the game is played. Williams’s mental toughness and devastating serve were the tools she used to navigate her way on the tennis courts worldwide. Opponents lost the battle upon seeing Williams across the net. The sight of Williams flicking her hair, bouncing the ball on the ground five times, and tossing it in the air struck fear in hundreds of tennis players who had no idea where the ball would land or the intensity of the strike.
Her records speak for themselves — the most Grand Slam wins in the open era; most singles and doubles Grand Slam wins after the age of 30; most career Grand Slams in singles and doubles; simultaneous holder of Olympic gold and all four Grand Slams in both singles and doubles; winner of more than 10 Grand Slam singles titles in two separate decades; winner of Grand Slam singles titles in three decades; seven titles at two different Grand Slams; the first player in the open era to win singles titles across four decades and AP female athlete of the decade.
Apart from dominating and changing the game, Serena played a crucial role in changing the game’s rules. The Hawk-Eye technology, which visually tracks the ball’s trajectory, was introduced after a controversial ruling against Williams at the 2004 US Open. In January 2020, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) announced a trial allowing effective coaching from the player box. The trial came on the back of the 2018 US Open final between Williams and Naomi Osaka, where the umpire penalised Williams because her coach made “hand signals”, which Williams said she did not see.
Another factor that sets Williams head and shoulders above her peers is that she transcends her sports. Her tentacles stretch beyond tennis into fashion, activism, philanthropy, acting and finance.
What is Serena Williams’s legacy? Williams helped shape the debate on racism and sexism in sports. She drew attention to the danger of body shaming. From her impact on Hawk-Eye technology to coaching, she left the game different from how she found it. Her success on the court drew interest from players of a demographic significantly underrepresented in tennis.
Players like Heather Watson, Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Taylor Townsend, Whitney Osigwe, Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff, who Serena and Venus Williams inspired, are now regulars on the women’s tour. Besides drawing black players to the WTA tour, Williams helped attract black fans to tennis tournaments. Before the Williams sisters’ exploits, it was rare to see black tennis fans at the Grand Slams, but this began to change with their success on the courts. She indirectly contributed to making the sport more financially viable by creating global interest in the women’s game. During the 2001 US Open final featuring Venus and Serena Williams in the final, history was made when for the first time, a Grand Slam women’s finale aired in US primetime television, with 22.7 million viewers.
As a fan, it was a privilege to have watched her play in the flesh. She took us on a journey along the rectangular surface with a low net stretched across the centre for over two decades. As she perfected her craft, some of us screamed for joy, others remained transfixed to their seats in amusement, while some of us wept at her unexpected losses. It might be game, set, match and tennis for Williams, but it is certainly not the end. At 40 years of age, she still has her whole life ahead of her. Williams fought the good fight; she has finished the race and has earned a well-deserved retirement. There is now laid up for her the crown of the best ever.
Thanks for the memories, Serena.