Before we talk about what she meant, let’s talk about who she was. A black girl from Los Angeles with a sister she worshipped and a father she adored. Richard Williams was a tough and fiercely clever man from Shreveport in Louisiana who had spent his childhood running from the Ku Klux Klan. He had his nose broken three times, was chased down the street with chains and bats, stabbed in the leg with a railroad spike because he wouldn’t call a white man Mister. From her earliest days, Serena Williams would be taught that true freedom came only from safety, which came from money and power, which could only be secured through knowledge and hard work, the hunger to win and keep winning.
Venus was the older sister by 15 months, but it looked like more. Venus towered over Serena when they played together, moved with effortless grace around the court, hummed with poise and frightening power. It was Venus who turned professional first, reached the top ten first, won the first three tour matches between them, and was anointed as the new star of the game. Overpowered and overshadowed, Serena was forced to adapt. She developed a subtler game, working the angles, playing more drop shots, learning to hang in there. And when her height and strength finally arrived, they were merely the finishing touches to a game that was now ready to conquer all it encountered.
There is an interview with the Williams sisters from the early 1990s, shortly after they had relocated to Florida to pursue tennis careers. “If you were a tennis player,” the interviewer asks Serena, “who would you want to be like?” Serena thinks for a long time. Eventually, she says: “I would want other people to be like me.” She was 11 years old.
That revolutionary streak, the lust for originality, the need to be regarded not simply as a player but as a prototype: none of this ever left her, even in her departure. Other players retire in a bouquet of garlands and tributes. Serena, by contrast, is “evolving away from tennis”, as she put it in a recent Vogue article, and does so not in triumph or with a sense of peace but with resentment at being forced to choose between growing her career and growing her family. “I hate that I have to be at this crossroads,” she wrote. “There is no happiness in this topic for me.”
[See also: The power of Serena Williams]
What will remain of her? The wins, certainly: 39 Grand Slam titles in singles and doubles, four Olympic gold medals, 319 weeks as world number one, a haul that would have been more impressive still had she not lost years of her career to injuries, pregnancy and postnatal depression. The advocacy: her bold support for racial justice and gender equality, the investment in black-owned businesses through her venture capital firm. The cultural footprint: the fashion statements, the music videos, the way that a generation of young black players such as Sloane Stephens and Coco Gauff was able to rise through the game with a fraction of the revulsion that greeted the Williams sisters.
But the real legacy of Serena Williams in tennis is not so much a sheaf of numbers or a stack of precious metal but an energy: the way she filled a tennis stadium and made it sway and rock to her will. Sometimes she won because she was the more talented, sometimes because she had the rub of the green or the coolness of mind to endure the big points. But there were also times when she won simply by being Serena, a mesmerising human force that seemed to conceive and portend victory long before it had been executed.
The fight never ended, and perhaps that was because there was never any shortage of enemies. She could be a volatile presence on the court, sometimes outrageously, profanely so. But nothing could ever justify the sheer weight of dislike and distrust she attracted, the accusations of surliness and disrespect, the racially loaded way in which her body and appearance were discussed, the sense that whatever she achieved her presence was somehow alien, hostile, sinister. The incorrigibly petulant John McEnroe was warmly accepted into the tennis establishment. Tim Henman smashed a Wimbledon ball girl in the face and was a national hero within 12 months. But somehow, something always needed to be done about Serena.
Perhaps this is why, even at the age of 40 and with a trophy collection that may never be surpassed, there is still a sense of unfinished business there. There are always more frontiers to conquer, more doubters to be silenced. Since 2017, when she won her 23rd and most recent Grand Slam title at the Australian Open – a tournament she won while two months pregnant – she has pushed her body and spirit to breaking point in an attempt to carry on the fight.
The greatest of all time? It’s a pub game, a meaningless question in many ways. What we can say with certainty is that she did what she always said she would. Serena Williams was like no other tennis player who had ever walked the earth or ever will again. Instead, other people ended up being more like her. Tennis is more professional these days, a more aggressively competitive sport, and for all its flaws a kinder and more diverse place too. For Serena Williams, a short farewell tour beckons, along with one last grab for glory at September’s US Open. But in more than one sense, her work is done.
[See also: When England’s women won the Euros]
This article appears in the 17 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Six Months that Changed the World