“I don’t know. If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone, so…”
-Said Serena Williams, one of the most recognisable names in world tennis, after her 2021 Australian Open loss against Naomi Osaka.
And true to her word, she has been rather vague regarding her decision to call time on her glittery career that has spanned decades. While she let the world wonder what the future holds for her, with her exact choice of word being ‘evolve’, it is only right that we reflect on the brilliant career and the astounding cultural impact the icon has had on the sport and society.
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Williams went from learning tennis on public courts in a notorious American gangland neighbourhood to becoming a superstar for a generation and perhaps the greatest player in history.
Now, the 40-year-old legend is heading for retirement after almost certainly playing her last match, a three-set defeat to Ajla Tomljanovic at the US Open on Friday.
“I’m ready to be a mom and explore a different version of myself,” she said as she looked ahead to family time with daughter Olympia.
Serena became an African-American icon in a white-dominated sport, winning 23 Grand Slam titles and smashing aside milestones with a determination as powerful as the raw energy that defines her shotmaking magic.
“She changed tennis! She brought an athletic dimension that there was not at all, she opened the doors, with her sister Venus, to a whole generation of players because it was a white sport. She invented tennis intimidation because she has a presence that makes others fear her,” said coach Patrick Mouratoglou in an interview in September on the eve of her 40th birthday.
Serena and sister Venus, a seven-time Grand Slam winner, were executive producers on the movie “King Richard” which told the Hollywood fairytale of them being taught tennis by father Richard Williams while growing up on the tough streets of Compton, California.
“I am still just that girl with the racquet and a dream and I’m just playing for that,” Williams said after a 2013 US Open title.
She wound up living the dream as she won seven Australian Open titles, three French Opens, seven Wimbledon crowns and six US Opens to stand agonisingly just one shy of matching the all-time record for Slam singles titles set by Margaret Court.
Serena won her first Grand Slam title at the 1999 US Open at age 17 and in 2017 captured her 23rd and most recent major title at the Australian Open while pregnant with Olympia.
She gave birth to her daughter in September 2017 and spent six weeks bedridden after a pulmonary embolism, but battled back to make her return to competition five months later in Fed Cup doubles alongside Venus.
Williams, whose husband is Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, twice completed a “Serena Slam” by winning all four major titles in a row. She did it in 2002-2003 starting with the 2002 French Open and again in 2014-15 starting with the 2014 US Open.
She had a chance to complete a calendar-year Grand Slam in 2015 but was upset by Italy’s Roberta Vinci in the US Open semi-finals.
“I never really want to focus on the numbers,” Williams said. “I started playing tennis not to be the greatest but just because I had a racquet and a dream. Now people are saying I could be (the greatest), but for me, I’m just not there yet.
“People like Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf, they are just, to me, the ultimate icons in the history of women’s tennis.”
Williams brought style and power to her game, at times her fashion designs distracted from her dazzling on-court efforts. But what appealed the most to the viewers was the fact that she was unabashedly herself, on the court and off it.
“I love me. I’ve learned to love me. I’ve been like this my whole life and I embrace me. I love how I look. I am a full woman and I’m strong, and I’m powerful, and I’m beautiful at the same time.”
– Hitting out at body shamers
She won the most recent of her 73 career WTA titles in January 2020 at the Auckland Open, her only crown as a mother.
Four times Williams had a chance to equal Court’s all-time record but lost in the 2018 and 2019 finals at both Wimbledon and the US Open.
“There comes a time in life when we have to decide to move in a different direction. That time is always hard when you love something so much. My goodness do I enjoy tennis. But now, the countdown has begun. I have to focus on being a mom, my spiritual goals and finally discovering a different, but just (as) exciting Serena. I’m gonna relish these next few weeks.”
– In July this year, discussing her imminent retirement.
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Struggles and setback
She battled through struggles as well. Serena’s half-sister, Yetunde Price, was fatally shot in 2003 at age 31 by a gang member in their hometown of Compton. She had been Serena’s personal assistant.
“At first people said it would be fine, it would be all right but it turned out to be a lot more serious. If it had been left two days later it could have been career-ending – or even worse. They told me I had several blood clots in both lungs. A lot of people die from that.”
-On blood clots on her lung in 2010
After Williams cut her foot at a German restaurant, days following her 2010 Wimbledon triumph, she needed two surgeries and spent 20 weeks in a walking cast, a situation she blamed for causing blood clots in her lungs in 2011 that threatened her life. She missed three major events and was out for almost a year.
“(Doctors) said I had clots in both lungs. A lot of people die from that because you don’t recognize it,” Williams said in 2011.
“I couldn’t breathe, I honestly just thought I was out of shape. A couple more days and it would not have been good. It could have possibly been career-ending.
“Being at the top of your game, having to have something like that happen randomly was tough, and it really makes me appreciate things.”
Williams credited her success to the work by her father and stuck by him even after her parents split up.
“I wouldn’t have won a single title without him and without his backing,” said Williams. “He’s a great coach. He’s just so innovative.
“He built my game and my sister’s game. He gave us a good foundation. It was solid and it wasn’t weak, so we were always able to grow our game.”
Richard Williams would let other children taunt his daughters as they practised.
“In order to be successful you must prepare for the unexpected — and I wanted to prepare for that,” he told CNN in 2015. “Criticism can bring the best out of you.”
A glance into the life of the phenomenon called Serena:
Name: Serena Williams
Date of birth: 26/09/1981 (40)
Place of birth: Saginaw, Michigan
Place of residence: Palm Beach Gardens, Florida
Highest world ranking: 1 (currently unranked)
Year-end number one: 5 times
Turned professional: 1995
Married since November 2017 to Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Internet site Reddit
Mother to daughter Olympia, born September 2017
Prize money: $94,806,080
Overall titles: 73
Grand Slam titles: 23
Australian Open: 7 (2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2017); runner-up 1 (2016)
French Open: 3 (2002, 2013, 2015); runner-up 1 (2016)
Wimbledon: 7 (2002, 2003, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2016); runner-up: 4 (2004, 2008, 2018, 2019)
US Open: 6 (1999, 2002, 2008, 2012, 2013, 2014); runner-up 4 (2001, 2011, 2018, 2019)
WTA Finals: 5 (2001, 2009, 2012, 2013, 2014); runner-up 2 finales (2002, 2004)
Fed Cup: 1 (1999)
Olympic Games: Gold medal singles (2012), 3 women’s doubles with sister Venus (2000, 2008, 2012)
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