Serena Williams has made her way into the tennis history books

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

She has played very little in the past two years and only played two singles matches in the past 13 months.

But as Williams, now 40, made clear when announcing her impending retirement on Tuesday, it will very soon be time for the rest of the world to get used to her absence from the courts as well.

Tennis is a global game, which is a big part of its charm, and despite Williams’ part-time status lately, if you ask anyone on just about any street to start naming female tennis players, the first name most would produce would always be Serena Williams.

With her technically solid and powerful serve, she possessed perhaps the most decisive shot in the long history of women’s football. But there was so much more to his tennis: powerful, open groundstrokes; exceptional and explosive court coverage; and a fierce drive for territorial competition that helped her overcome deficits and adversity throughout a professional career that spanned a quarter of a century.

At her peak – and there were many – she was one of the most dominant figures in all of sport: able to overwhelm and intimidate the opposition with full-powered punches and full-throated roars, often timed for maximum effect.

Through service, personality and lifelong success, she has become synonymous with tennis while managing to transcend it as a black champion with symbolic reach even though she has long shunned political or social commentary, in part because of his upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness. . Years after Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe paved the way for black champions, Williams has created new paths for modern athletes by balancing competition and outdoor pursuits.

Her off-court world — including acting, fashion design, venture capital, family life and motherhood — has likely kept her fresh and competitive for far longer than expected. And we’re not just talking about audience expectations. Her father and longtime coach, Richard Williams, clearly had a vision: He dreamed up a wacky and ultimately right-on-target family plan for Serena and her older sister Venus to dominate women’s tennis. But he also predicted that the two would retire early to pursue other projects.

Father didn’t know any better in this case. Both sisters played into their 40s, displaying an undeniable love of the game which is rather surprising considering they had no choice whether or not to play it.

“I was pushed hard by my parents,” Serena Williams wrote in the Vogue essay published Tuesday announcing her impending retirement. “Nowadays, so many parents say, ‘Let your children do whatever they want!’ Well, that’s not what got me to where I am. I didn’t rebel when I was a kid. I worked hard and followed the rules.

She then opened up about her 4-year-old daughter, Olympia. “I want to push Olympia – not in tennis, but in anything that captures her interest,” Williams said. “But I don’t want to force it too much. I always try to find that balance.

It’s a tricky dance, and I suspect many tennis families have failed trying to follow the Williams model, which included a cradle-to-tour focus on greatness but also – extraordinarily – no junior tournaments. after the age of 12.

“Thousands of lives have probably taken the wrong path trying to follow this,” said Rick Macci, the quick-talking coach who shaped Serena and Venus Williams’ games in their youth under Richard’s watchful gaze. “This playbook only worked for the sisters because they were both so incredibly competitive that maybe they didn’t need to play junior tennis. Other kids have to compete to learn how to win and lose.

Although the sisters are still, in some way, lumped together in the collective consciousness, it was Serena who grew up, as her father correctly predicted, to become the biggest gamer.

Serena will win 23 Grand Slam singles titles (so far) to Venus’ seven, and will spend 319 weeks at No. 1 of Venus’ 11 weeks. Serena says she’s not happy about the disparity, pointing out that she never would 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, would soon join retired Serena at some point after the US Open or if they decided to call it a career together in New York. But so far, only Serena has made it clear that the end is truly near and that – to roll out her own rather endearing retirement sneaker code – she’s “evolving away from tennis”.

She certainly helped tennis evolve with scoring power in all areas of the court; she certainly helped society evolve with her drive to change the dialogue about body image and strong women fiercely pursuing their goals. She had the confidence to take risks, sometimes sartorial, like her French Open jumpsuit, and sometimes more profound, like her decision to boycott the tournament in Indian Wells, California, after being booed and her father said hearing racial slurs. in 2001. Fourteen years later, she returned with the aim of bridging the gap and sending a message about second chances.

But it was his tennis that spoke loudest for the longest time. The sport, like many sports, remains obsessed with the Greatest of All Time debate, and Williams certainly belongs at the heart of the conversation. It’s easy to believe that she, at her best with the same gear, would have beaten any woman at her best.

But she wasn’t as consistent as a winner in regular tournaments as former women’s champions like Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Steffi Graf.

Williams picked her spots and her 73 singles titles on the tour 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 widely played by stars. Evert has won 157 singles titles. Graf, who retired at 30, won 107 and remained No. 1 for a record total of 377 weeks.

But Serena, who has amassed a women’s record $94.5 million in prize money, played at a time when Grand Slams have increasingly become the yardstick for greatness and the center of competition. global interest and attention.

To her obvious frustration, she remains one short shy of the record of 24 major singles titles, held by Margaret Court, an Australian who played when Grand Slam tournament grounds were smaller and the women’s game lacked the depth it has today.

But comparing eras remains a particularly tricky task in tennis (non-Australian greats of the past have often skipped the Australian Open altogether). Perhaps it is wiser not to look for a definitive answer.

“She is without a doubt the greatest player of her generation,” said Navratilova.

It suffers no argument, and while tennis generations have a way of shrinking down to mere years, Williams’ greatness was genuinely true to the term. She is the only player to have won singles titles in the 1990s, 2000s, 2010s and 2020s. Ten of her Grand Slam singles titles have come after 30 years: more than any other player. She also reached four major singles finals after giving birth to Olympia.

“She was fresh at 30, much fresher than other players and champions of the past,” Navratilova said. “We would have played a lot more games at that time. But the physical issues meant she had taken a lot of breaks.

This enduring excellence – a tribute to Williams’ deep drive, phenomenal talent and innate belief in her own powers – will be a big part of her legacy, no matter how far she goes in what is surely her final US Open. .

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