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In retirement, the seeds of Serena Williams' deep fame will continue to grow
Serena has earned global respect as a transcendent athlete, even outside the precincts of tennis. But there’s more—much more.
Published Sep 03, 2022
Tennis Honors: Naomi Osaka on Serena Williams
NEW YORK—The inevitable yet barely believable end of Serena Williams’ career came on a Friday evening with a hint of autumn in the air, in the backwash of three magical nights and stirring tributes to the greatest player in U.S. tennis history.
Serena will surely continue to be a fixture in tennis and, as ever, in American culture. But her long, spectacular voyage as a singles champion nonpareil—a heady trip that began in 1999—was brought to a halt on the same Arthur Ashe Stadium court where it started, with Serena’s first major singles title.
Williams was beaten by Ajla Tomljanovic in three sets, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-1, of sometimes spectacular tennis by both women, truly a Williams-worthy match. This has been Serena’s tournament from the start, a US Open that rapidly morphed into the Ultimate Serena Open. In the days leading up to this final tournament and match for the 40-year-old, 23-time Grand Slam champion, reporters were kept busy beating the water to a froth, searching for one last insight into Williams—her legacy, her career, her cultural impact. Williams’ peers had no shortage of words or acclaim.
Coco Gauff bored straight to the heart of the matter with the candor of a self-confident, 18-year-old prodigy—and apprentice: “Before Serena came along, there was not really an icon of the sport that looked like me,” said Gauff, a talent unlikely to mine her inspiration from an ordinary player. “Growing up, I never thought that I was different because the No. 1 player in the world was somebody who looked like me.”
That’s the most conspicuous contribution Williams made to tennis, but also to all the sports in which minorities have been underrepresented. Think about it: tennis will never again look the way it did when the Williams family arrived on the scene, a time when Black and brown and Asian people largely felt excluded or uninterested in the sport because it was culturally foreign to them. Thanks to Williams’ persona and her outsized achievements, this ‘Serena effect’ became manifest in other sports, as a stream—if not the flood it has become in tennis—changed the visage of sports. If a person has become Serena in a sport like tennis, why not in skiing? figure skating? Gymnastics?
Serena has earned global respect as a transcendent athlete, even outside the precincts of tennis. But there’s more—much more. Naomi Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion, is the most successful person of color to pass through the historically narrow door that has now become a gaping portal blown wide open for all by Williams. Osaka said last Friday, “I think that her (Serena’s) legacy is really wide, to the point where you can't even describe it in words.”
Now there’s a wonderful non-insight insight. Serena’s reach is so extensive, and there are so many intriguing dimensions to her life history and career, that it’s easy to throw up your hands in frustration—or to surrender to broad, bloodless generalizations and cliches. The process of turning Williams (or anyone else) into an icon can have the unfortunate side effect of obscuring that person’s unique personality, making it difficult for her to connect with different people, on a variety of levels. Not so Williams. She has arrived at a place where, as 2021 US Open runner-up Leylah Fernandez said, “I think she has inspired everybody. It doesn't matter who you are, you know who Serena is. You know the great things that she's done.”
It takes a radically unconventional personality to accomplish what Serena did: secure status as one of the greatest athletes in sporting history, but with that honor folded into a larger, vivid identity. Fans love Roger Federer much the same way they have loved Rod Laver, Pete Sampras, Chris Evert and many other greats. But even as those legends achieved deep fame, they remained strongly tethered to tennis. Many loved them precisely for their fealty to the game, their “purity.”
But that isn’t Serena Williams, who seemed to know from the get-go that life, even for a great athlete, is a more complicated, messy business. If you created a pie chart to illustrate the ways Williams stimulated the public imagination there would be many colorful slices—even if the largest were the red one labeled “tennis” (you just can’t ignore those 23 major trophies). Yet it sometimes seems that her tennis triumphs were just a handy way for Williams to pursue even greater if undeclared goals, a precondition to the “evolving” that so preoccupies her now.
Rick Macci, the first coach (after father Richard Williams) to work regularly with Venus and Serena, tells a story suggesting that by age 11, Serena knew exactly what role tennis might play in her life, but also how to get what she wants out of life in general and what it might cost. This was a child with a preternational grasp of the transactional nature of so much of what we do.
This has been Serena’s tournament from the start, a US Open that rapidly morphed into the Ultimate Serena Open.
Macci, recently a guest on The Goat: Serena (a podcast on which I worked with co-hosts Zina Garrison and Chanda Rubin), recalled how one day while Venus was typically “grinding” on the court, Serena was moving sluggishly, apparently disinterested in playing. Macci told her to start moving, whereupon she replied, “What are you going to give me? I’m tired, I’m thirsty, if you get me Pepsi and some curly fries and a Snickers bar . . and on the corner they’re selling Green Day t-shirts—if you get me that, I’ll work 100 percent for the next hour.”
Macci sent an assistant for snacks and promised to get Serena the t-shirt when the vendors returned the following morning. She then fulfilled her end of the bargain and went to town on a practice partner until the 3 p.m. quitting time.
“She was like Niagara Falls coming off the court, this [perspiring] little 11-year old,” Macci said. “She turned around and said, ‘You better have that Green Day shirt in the morning.’ I liked that. I got a lot out of Serena in that hour in the 95-degree heat.”
Williams always understood that fame in tennis wasn’t the final stop on her journey, and at times she struggled mightily with the challenge of having to maintain her reputation even as other, desires, challenges, and even tragic events intruded. In 2003, just months after she completed the first of her two “Serena Slams,” Williams’ half-sister Yetunde Price was slain in a drive-by shooting.
Things began to unravel for Serena just as she hit her earliest plateau in the game. She was stunned in the 2004 Wimbledon final by Maria Sharapova, a 6’2” Russian blonde who was the same age (17) as Serena had been when she won her first major in 1999. That was the first of their 22 meetings, and also the first time in her Williams’ budding career that she was blasted off the court by an aggressive and ferocious ball striker other than her own sister, Venus.
The gauntlet was thrown and the table appeared set for a juicy, decades-long rivalry teeming with all the contrasts that make such serial struggles interesting, along with the technical and stylistic stuff lapped up by tennis geeks. Everyone wondered, how would Serena respond to the Sharapova challenge?
But Serena was in no condition to have a rivalry with anyone, given the serious funk she was slipping into. Her focus on the game diminished, and that contributed to a series of injuries that hampered her efforts. She slipped into depression and later wrote in an autobiography that she sought the help of a therapist.
The event that pulled Serena out of the listlessness in which she was mired for much of the period between the fall of 2003 and the start of 2007 (a period during which she lost that Wimbledon final to Sharapova, won just one of 13 majors, missing five of those for various reasons) was a trip she took to the African nations of Senegal and Ghana in November 2006. During their trip to Dakar, the family visited and toured the Goree Island “House of Slaves,” a museum and memorial to the Atlantic slave trade.
Isha Price, Serena’s half-sister, told The Goat podcast that as the family “debriefed” after the visit, Serena, visibly moved, said, “You know, if we [including ancestors] can go through that, and then make that passage on the boat, and I'm still here. . .Like I have no excuse to complain about anything.”
Indian Wells, USA
Tremendous Tuesday: The entire round of 16 is played today
Joel Drucker reports from around the grounds at the bustling BNP Paribas Open.
By then, the Australian Open loomed on the horizon—and some tournament it turned out to be for Williams. Her ranking fell as low as No. 139 at about the time she made the pilgrimage to Africa, and she entered the first major of 2007 ranked No. 81. Many pundits scoffed at Serena’s vow to return to the top. One called her a “cow,” another said she was “deluded.”
Disbelief reigned, even as Williams powered and slashed her way to the final, overcoming a head cold and painful blisters on one foot as well as a full menu of varied opponents. There, waiting for her, was an in-form, No. 2-ranked Sharapova, ready to renew a rivalry that, at the time, stood at two wins apiece.
Williams defied the odds and the conventional wisdom, overwhelming the woman projected as her career rival, 6-1, 6-2. Remarkably, Serena would not lose another match to Sharapova, sweeping their next and final 19 meetings to finish with a 20-2 career edge. The astonishing thing is that, all along, pundits continued to view and describe the match-up as a “rivalry.” The misnomer was a compliment to Sharapova as well as Williams, because Sharapova was a tenacious champion who earned a career Grand Slam and specialized in intimidating and pulverizing opponents.
The way Williams quashed that rivalry is central to her legacy as an athlete, an incontrovertible testament to her absolute supremacy and claim as the greatest player of all time. The extraordinary nature of that “rivalry” will dim with time, but it may be all you need to know about Serena, the tennis champion—plus.
That plus is a nice place to visit: full of rooms, nooks and crannies that have little or nothing to do with rivalry, race, or records. There’s an inquisitive, playful side of Serena—along with a strongly felt religious faith—that has been buried amid all those momentous feats of derring-do, those dramatic fashion statements, the celebrity interactions, the grave paeans produced by her sponsors.
That side of Williams, evident so long ago to Macci, was also familiar to many of her friends. That includes the actor-singer Common, who remains Serena’s close friend long after they ceased dating. Together, they used to go out to do karaoke. They went dancing. They even went surfing in Los Angeles, although a surfing paparazzo happened to be catching waves in the same place. He photographed them, and neither Common nor Serena put up much of a stink about their right to privacy.
Williams and Common knew that they live public lives, and that’s often a transactional business, just like fame, just like becoming great at tennis, just like playing for that extra hour for curly fries and a Green Day t-shirt.
But Serena surfing, who knew.