Serena Williams has forced her way into the tennis history books

Serena Williams’ tennis pros already know what their sport is like without her.

He has played very little in the last two years and has only made two singles appearances in the last 13 months.

But as Williams, now 40, announced his impending retirement on Tuesday, it will soon be time for the wider world to get used to his absence from the courts.

Tennis is a global game, which is a big part of its appeal, and despite Williams’ recent part-time tenure, if you ask anyone on any street to name female tennis players, the first name will still come up. Serena Williams.

With her technically sound and powerful serve, she had perhaps the most decisive hit in the long history of the women’s game. But there was much more to his tennis: powerful, open-position shots; exceptional and explosive court coverage; and a fierce, territorial competitive drive that helped him overcome deficits and adversity throughout a professional career that spanned a quarter of a century.

At his peak – and there were a few – he was one of the most dominant figures in any sport: able to overwhelm and intimidate the opposition with full punches and full grunts, often to maximum effect.

Through the power of service, personality and long-standing achievements, he became synonymous with tennis and managed to transcend it as a black champion with symbolic achievements, even if he had long shied away from political or social commentary, in part because of his upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness. . Years after Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe blazed the trail for black champions, Williams has created new ways for modern athletes to balance competition and outdoor pursuits.

Her world off the court — including acting, fashion design, venture capital, family life and motherhood — likely allowed her to stay fresh and competitive longer than expected. And we’re not just talking about public expectations. Her father and longtime coach, Richard Williams, clearly had a vision: He dreamed of a far-reaching and ultimately ambitious family plan for Serena and her older sister, Wiener, to dominate women’s tennis. But he also predicted that both would retire early to devote themselves to other pursuits.

The father did not know the best in this case. Both sisters played until their 40s and showed an undeniable love for the game, which is quite surprising considering they were given no choice.

“My parents failed me in a big way,” Serena Williams wrote in a Vogue op-ed published Tuesday announcing her retirement. “A lot of parents today say, ‘Let your kids do whatever they want!'” Well, that didn’t get me to where I am. He did not rebel as a child. I worked hard and followed the rules.”

Then he talked about his 4-year-old daughter, Olympia. “I want to challenge Olympia — not in tennis, but in whatever interests her,” Williams said. “But I don’t want to push too hard. I’m still trying to figure out that balance.”

It’s a delicate dance, and my suspicion is that many tennis families have tried to follow Williams’ template, which includes a focus on greatness but also – unusually – no junior tournaments after 12 years.

“Thousands of lives have probably gone the wrong way trying to follow that,” said Rick Mackey, the fast-talking coach who shaped the games of both Serena and Venus Williams in their youth under Richard’s watchful eye. “That playbook only worked for the sisters because they were both so incredibly competitive that they probably didn’t need to play tennis. Other children must compete to learn how to win and how to lose.

While the sisters will always be, to some extent, bundled together in the collective consciousness, it was Serena who grew up, as her father correctly predicted, to be the bigger player.

Serena has won 23 Grand Slam titles (currently) to Venus’ seven, and 319 weeks at No. 1 to Venus’ 11 weeks. Serena says that she is not happy about this disparity and emphasizes that she would never have reached such heights without her sister’s high-flying example.

“Without Venus, there would be no Serena,” Serena once said.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Venus, 42, joins Serena soon after her retirement after the US Open, or if they decide to call it a career together in New York. But for now, only Serena has shown that the end is indeed nigh and that — to use her own rather catchy sneaker-pulling code for retirement — she’s “growing out of tennis.”

He certainly helped the development of tennis by making points profitable from all areas of the court; She certainly helped the community evolve with her willingness to change the dialogue about body image and strong women fiercely pursuing their goals. She has had the confidence to take risks, sometimes sartorial, like her French Open dresses, and sometimes more profound, like her decision to boycott a tournament in Indian Wells, California, after she was silenced and her father said she heard racial slurs. in 2001. Fourteen years later, she’s back to bridge the divide and send a message about second chances.

But it’s his tennis that speaks the longest. The sport, like many sports, remains up for debate about the greatest of all time, and Williams is certainly at the center of the conversation. It is easy to believe that he could best beat any woman with the same equipment.

But she hasn’t been nearly as consistent a regular-tournament winner as past women’s champions such as Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Steffi Graf.

Williams has picked her spots, and her 73 Tour singles titles rank her fifth on the Open Era career list. Navratilova won 167 singles titles and 177 doubles titles at a time when doubles was much more prestigious and stars were widely played. Evert won 157 singles titles. Graf, who retired at age 30, won 107 and remained No. 1 for a record 377 weeks.

But Serena, who amassed a women’s record $94.5 million in prize money, was playing at a time when the Grand Slams were increasingly becoming the measuring stick of fame and the center of global interest and attention.

To her apparent disappointment, she remains one behind the record of 24 major singles titles held by Margaret Court, an Australian who played when the field at Grand Slam tournaments was smaller and the women’s game lacked the depth it has today.

But comparing eras remains a particularly difficult task in tennis (non-Australian greats of the past often missed the Australian Open). Perhaps it is wisest not to look for a definitive answer.

“She’s the best player of her generation, without a doubt,” Navratilova said.

That’s not an argument, and while tennis generations have a way of shrinking by a few years, Williams’ greatness was certainly true to that term. He is the only player to have won singles titles in the 1990s, 2000s, 2010s and 2020s. His ten Grand Slam singles titles came 30 years later: more than any other player. He has also reached four major finals since Olympia was born.

“She was fresh at 30, much fresher than other players and past champions,” Navratilova said. “We would have played a lot more matches at that point. But physical problems meant he got a lot of time off.”

That enduring brilliance — a tribute to Williams’ deep drive, phenomenal talent and innate belief in her own abilities — will be a huge part of her legacy no matter how far she advances in what is sure to be her final US Open.

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