When Serena Williams walks away from tennis, it won’t simply mark the retirement of an athlete with more Grand Slam singles titles than any player in the sport’s modern era. It will mark something far more profound: the retirement of an athlete who has transformed the game in myriad ways.
The revolution Williams wrought started with the unparalleled power she brought to the women’s game and the competitive ferocity that forced other women to find their own — if they wanted to have a chance against her.
Now 40, she has reset earnings expectations for top female athletes, as well, with her record $94 million in career winnings on the court.
Along the way she has redefined resilience, competing for a quarter-century in the face of criticism, through grief, while pregnant and after childbirth — battling with the same fire whether ranked No. 1 in the world or having tumbled well outside the top 100.
She also has shattered notions of what tennis champions look like, how they dress and comport themselves. She has inspired the next generation of girls and boys to believe tennis was their sport, too, if that’s what they wanted.
Said former U.S. Tennis Association president and CEO Katrina Adams, a former pro herself: “Serena’s presence in our sport revolutionized tennis. She transformed it to what it is today with her power, with her grit, with the perseverance and determination and with her fashion. She left it all out on the court with a never-say-die-attitude whenever she was down in a match.”
Rafael Nadal, 36, hailed Williams as a “legend” and “ambassador” for sports during his pretournament news conference this weekend.
“I think [of] her as an athlete … not just a tennis player,” said Nadal, who counts four U.S. Open titles among his men’s record 22 majors. “From the tennis perspective, it’s a big loss that she is leaving. But on the other hand, she deserved all the things that she achieved because she worked enough to make that happen for such a long time, with a lot of determination, dedication, discipline. If not, all of this is impossible. So now is the moment that she deserves to choose whatever she wants to do.”
If this U.S. Open is Williams’s last star turn, as she intimated in a recent essay in Vogue, explaining why she is “evolving away from tennis” as she approaches her 41st birthday, it will be a fitting bookend.
Williams won the first of her Open-era record 23 majors here at age 17.
Though reared in Compton, Calif., where her father and mother taught her and sister Venus to play on hardscrabble public courts amid a backdrop of gang violence, Arthur Ashe Stadium, the world’s biggest tennis venue, has always brought out an extra dimension in this born fighter and born entertainer.
The 23,771-seat Ashe Stadium at USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center has been the setting of six U.S. Open triumphs by Williams as well as controversy — some not her own making and some she compounded — amid gut-spilling efforts to tap every shot and psychological tactic in her repertoire to send rivals packing.
A ratings bonanza
It seemed the height of hyperbole when Richard Williams predicted nearly four decades ago that his youngest daughter, Serena, would be an even greater tennis player than his daughter Venus. Both, he said, would one day be the world’s best.
He proved prophetic.
What the sisters achieved individually and in tandem has been without precedent in sport. Venus reached No. 1 in the world in February 2002. Serena ascended to No. 2 that June. And in July, the order flipped, with Serena No. 1 and Venus No. 2.
“They could knock the cover off the ball and run down every shot,” tennis historian Steve Flink recalled. “And they had the two best serves in the game.”
For one stretch in 2002 and 2003, Venus and Serena met in the finals of five out of six majors. Serena won them all and, in doing so, held all four Grand Slam titles at the same time to complete what she dubbed a “Serena Slam.”
She had announced herself to most tennis fans at 17, in the 1999 U.S. Open, knocking off defending champion Lindsay Davenport, among the era’s biggest hitters, to reach her first Grand Slam final.
Asked about her fears on the eve of the championship match, Serena said: “I fear no one. I only fear God.”
The next day, she upset world No. 1 Martina Hingis to win her first Grand Slam.
As S.L. Price characterized Serena’s coming-out party in Sports Illustrated: “Historic shifts hit tennis like hurricanes; you see them coming, but never know exactly where or when they’ll make landfall. Suddenly, at this Open, the future came blowing in.”
Serena was the future of women’s tennis. And she was a ratings bonanza, with CBS reporting its ratings had doubled from the previous year’s women’s final.
That pattern held throughout Serena’s career, according to ESPN vice president Jamie Reynolds, who oversees the network’s production of tennis.
“It is akin to the ‘Tiger Effect’ in golf — the bump in interest based on whether Tiger was in the field or not,” Reynolds said. “That’s what it’s like when Serena is in the field.
“… The trend we typically see when Serena is involved and goes deep in a tournament is that the ratings for those matches can easily double. That’s the general rule of thumb for us.”
Said Hall of Fame inductee John McEnroe, on what has made Williams must-see TV: “All you need to say about Serena is that she’s put herself in that pantheon of GOATs of GOATs.”
‘A savage fighter’
Any analysis of what places her in that pantheon starts with power — of her groundstrokes and especially her serve.
In the serve-and-volley era of women’s tennis that preceded Williams, the convention was to use a well-placed serve to start a point.
Serena, like Venus and a handful of heavy hitters, used the serve to win a point.
While its sheer velocity, hurtling at upward of 128 mph, was enough to knock most opponents back on their heels, the clinical mechanics of Serena’s serve was its real genius.
Explained Paul Annacone, a former pro who coached Pete Sampras much of his Hall of Fame career, as well as Roger Federer: “Serena’s service motion is a thing of beauty. The mechanics are so textbook-oriented. Even in the biggest moments, she can rely on the repetition of a very ingrained, spot-on technique of a serve.”
McEnroe considers her serve better than that of some men on tour.
Said Flink, who has studied the game for five decades: “The motion would never break down. You felt like she could almost go out on court with her eyes closed and hit serves into the corner because the mechanics were so good, the motion was so smooth and elegant. And she could do it excellently under pressure.”
Add to that her groundstroke blasts, and younger players started scrambling to add heft and power to their games. She simply raised the bar so high, they had no choice.
McEnroe likens the phenomenon to Stephen Curry’s impact in the NBA.
“Steph Curry has changed the basketball game; everyone is shooting three-pointers, but no one does it as well as him,” McEnroe said. “People try to match [Serena’s] power, but that was a level beyond.”
As for her on-court ferocity, Williams calls herself “a savage fighter” and an athlete who managed, through tennis, to turn a negative into a positive.
Mental toughness is tricky to measure, of course. There is no speed gun for that.
But Annacone, now a Tennis Channel analyst, knows it when he sees it. And he places two athletes above the rest on that count: Nadal and Williams.
“They do it with different personalities in different ways, but it’s the same thing: ‘All that matters is the next point, not what mattered 10 minutes ago, not what might happen, not the doubts. All that matters is the next 60 seconds in front of my nose,’ ” Annacone explained. “To be able to do that like your life depends on it — and keep doing it every point — sounds simple, but it’s really difficult.”
To this cause, Serena enlists the full range of passion and emotion — sometimes anger, sometimes joy and quite often shrieks, roars and fist-pumps that fire up her play.
That, too, has been revolutionary for women’s tennis in the view of 18-time Grand Slam champion Chris Evert, who betrayed hardly any emotion while competing. And it’s a revolution Evert hails as liberating, all because of Serena.
“She’s changed the way women compete as far as it’s okay to be ferocious and passionate and vocal out there, emotional out there on the court and still be a woman, still not take away from being a woman,” Evert said.
For some tennis fans, the theatrics and decibels of Williams’s game were too much.
But TV ratings, ticket sales and corporate interest in women’s tennis indicate that far more fans — including newly minted fans — flocked to her matches.
“She brought an element of entertainment to the game — first, just on her pure dominance, physical prowess and pure determination,” Adams said. “That grit. On every single point. People wanted to see that. And people wanted to energize her and motivate her.”
In the 14 months since she hobbled off Centre Court with an injury in Wimbledon’s first round in June 2021, Williams has played just four matches, losing three. She will turn 41 on Sept. 26 and is ranked 410th.
At her most recent match, a straight-sets defeat in Cincinnati to defending U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu, her 4-year-old daughter, Olympia, looked on from the guest box in Aunt Isha’s lap.
Still, it’s preposterous to put limits on what Williams might achieve in her 21st career U.S. Open when she begins play under the lights Monday at Ashe Stadium, cheered by a crowd that has always wanted more.
Serena Williams has spent the past 26 years proving she knows what it takes to be a champion, to face adversity, fight back and produce her best in the toughest moments.
“Not everybody has that ability like Serena,” Adams said. “I don’t know if anyone will ever have that ability going forward.”