Serena Williams exits US Open as one of the greatest ever, but her legacy goes far beyond her titles won

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NEW YORK — Twenty-three years ago, Serena Williams won her first Grand Slam title here. On Friday, she said her goodbyes in the same place, in front of a sold-out crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

“Thank you daddy, I know you’re watching. Thanks mom,” Williams said before starting to cry during her post-match on-court interview. “Everyone that’s here, that’s been on my side, for so many years, decades …

“These are happy tears, I guess. I don’t know. And I wouldn’t be Serena if there wasn’t Venus, so thank you Venus. She’s the only reason Serena Williams ever existed … It’s been a fun ride. It’s been the most incredible ride and journey I’ve ever been on.”

It was a fitting and full-circle finale for one of sports’ most legendary champions.

Williams, 40, shared her intention to retire after the US Open in an essay in Vogue last month, and has been given a hero’s farewell in her matches since. She admitted she had mixed feelings about the decision and knew it would be difficult to walk away from the sport that had defined much of her life.

“I don’t want it to be over, but at the same time I’m ready for what’s next,” she wrote. “I don’t know how I’m going to be able to look at this magazine when it comes out, knowing that this is it, the end of a story that started in Compton, California, with a little Black girl who just wanted to play tennis. This sport has given me so much.”

Alongside her older sister Venus, the duo began as young girls with a dream, training on the public courts near their house with their father, Richard. Today, Serena is one of the most successful athletes of all time and arguably the best tennis player in history.

She began her professional career in 1995 as a 14-year-old. In 2022, Williams walks away from the game with 858 tour victories, 73 singles titles, an Olympic gold medal and 319 weeks at No. 1. Together with Venus, she won 14 major doubles titles and three Olympic golds. Williams’ 23-major mark remains the most by a player, man or woman, in the Open Era.

“It’s been fascinating to watch,” Roger Federer told the Wall Street Journal in 2018. “[Serena] had a totally different upbringing — I came up through Switzerland with the federation, she did it with her dad and her sister. It’s an amazing story unto itself — and then she became one of the greatest, if not the greatest tennis player of all time.”

But the wins and the records are just one part of the story. Despite her unparalleled success, Williams will long be remembered for how she and Venus changed the sport forever.

“The legacy that [Serena] has left through her tennis career is something that I don’t think any other player can probably touch,” Coco Gauff said last month. “I think that the legacy that she will continue to leave throughout her life is something that can inspire many more generations.

“For me, I grew up watching her. I mean that’s the reason why I play tennis. Tennis being a predominantly white sport, it definitely helped a lot, because I saw somebody who looked like me dominating the game. It made me believe that I could dominate too.”

Many Black players, such as Gauff, Naomi Osaka, Taylor Townsend and Frances Tiafoe, credit the sisters for their interest and entrance into the sport that was once almost exclusively white. There had been other Black players before, including legends Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, but there weren’t many, and the numbers were sparse at the junior and recreational levels when Venus and Serena were first starting to play.

Today Williams is leaving the sport in an entirely different position, with a record-breaking 12 of the 32 American women in the main draw at the 2020 US Open identifying as Black, and three of the top five ranked American junior women identifying as non-white.

Martin Blackman, the general manager of player development for the USTA, said the numbers make clear the staggering influence of the Williams sisters. It’s a phenomenon he understands well as a Black former player.

“I started playing tennis because I listened to a broadcast of Arthur Ashe beating Jimmy Connors [at Wimbledon] on the radio in 1975,” Blackman said. “I don’t think my family would’ve started playing tennis if it weren’t for that and that influence and that inspiration. So for me, I would say their ultimate legacy is being two women that came into the sport as outsiders and two women who are leaving tennis as a sport that embraces everybody.

“The way they have opened the sport up and have attracted people of every background and every color, it’s incredible.”

The wins came quickly for both Serena and Venus. The pair earned their first Grand Slam doubles title together at the 1999 French Open, then Serena won her first major singles trophy at the US Open later that year as a 17-year-old, defeating a slew of stars in Kim Clijsters, Conchita Martinez, Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis.

While her game was still developing, and seemingly improving by the match, Serena Williams wowed the world, and her peers, with what she was able to do in New York.

“Her athleticism stood out right away, as well as her power and competitiveness, and how she handled the pressure,” said Kathy Rinaldi, who has worked with both Serena and Venus as part of the U.S. Billie Jean King Cup team, and played against the two in Serena’s first match at the US Open in doubles in 1997.

But life on tour was difficult at times for both sisters, who were two of only a handful of Black players at the professional level. Blackman noted the television commentary during their matches “wasn’t great,” and the animosity they experienced was on full display in a now-infamous incident that took place at Indian Wells in 2001. After Venus defeated Elena Dementieva in the quarterfinals of the event to set up a semifinal clash with Serena, Dementieva accused Richard of manipulating matches between the two sisters. The comment gained traction after Venus withdrew ahead of the semis because of a knee injury shortly before the match was to begin.

Days later, when Richard and Venus went to take their seats to watch Serena play in the final against Clijsters, the crowd began booing loudly. The jeers continued throughout the match, with the crowd turning their ire on Serena. The hostility continued even after Serena had won the match, and the ugly scene reached a fever pitch when she went to hug Richard and Venus.

Richard later said he was the target of several racial slurs throughout the match. Neither sister played at the tournament for well over a decade in a public boycott.

“More than the wins and the way they dominated, it’s the hardships and the roadblocks that both Serena and Venus faced and pushed through that make them icons and trailblazers,” Townsend said. “For players like myself, Coco, Sloane [Stephens] and Madison [Keys], we haven’t had to deal with so many things because it’s been done already. They dealt with a lot of ridicule and public embarrassment, but they fought through, and I just appreciate those things that we sometimes take for granted now.

“They not only gave me the opportunity to do what I do because of what they’ve been through, but to also be accepted in this sport. It’s not perfect now, and we all still get it in our own ways, but it’s so much different than it was back then when they were starting out.”

And even with the hardships, Serena Williams persevered. She claimed the last three major titles in 2002, and then won the 2003 Australian Open to record what was dubbed the “Serena Slam,” as she was the reigning champion of all four Grand Slam events at one time. In July 2002, she also took over the No. 1 ranking for the first time.

While Williams was of the most complete players in the game, her serve became her most dominant weapon and what separated her from the rest of the competition. “Serena is the best server I’ve seen since Steffi Graf was serving her best,” Pam Shriver wrote in a column for ESPN in 2002.

On and off the court, her star continued to rise. Williams became known as a fashion icon thanks to her memorable match outfits — perhaps no better punctuated than her faux-leather catsuit at the 2002 US Open — and there were magazine covers and seemingly countless sponsorships. Her reported $55 million deal with Nike in 2003 was then the largest endorsement deal by a female athlete in history.

While the wins and life as a celebrity might have looked effortless, there were hurdles along the way. On the court, there was a much-criticized outburst toward a line judge during Williams’ 2009 US Open semifinal match against Clijsters, after which Williams quickly apologized. Then a foot injury and life-threatening blood clot kept her sidelined for nearly a year between 2010 and 2011.

Despite the health scare, she rebounded quickly. Williams won Wimbledon and the US Open in 2012, and she secured her first and only gold medal in Olympic singles play. By doing so she became the first tennis player to record a career “Golden Slam” in both singles and doubles. There was a second “Serena Slam” in 2014-2015, and she nearly became just the third woman in the Open Era to record the elusive Calendar Slam in 2015 before falling in the semifinals at the US Open.

“The power, the confidence, the way of playing to stay super aggressive, to stay close to the baseline and to make so many winners,” said two-time major champion Simona Halep about Williams’ dominance and what set her apart. “And also the serve, which was untouchable sometimes, and the desire, the passion to win every ball.”

Williams discovered she was pregnant shortly before the 2017 Australian Open and, with medical clearance, she won the tournament. Meeting Venus in the final — for the ninth time with a Grand Slam trophy on the line — Serena notched her 23rd and final major title. Venus later joked the match was unfair as it was “really two against one.”

Her history with blood clots proved to be both dangerous and perhaps life-saving during what ended up being a complicated childbirth with daughter Olympia in September 2017. Serena recognized the symptoms after delivery and was able to alert the medical team of a potential pulmonary embolism.

While Williams has said she was not listened to initially, ultimately a blood clot was discovered in her lungs. In an effort to raise awareness for the high rate of death and complications during pregnancy for Black women, she has reflected openly about the multiple surgeries, scary moments and six weeks of painful bed rest that soon followed.

“When I first got home, I couldn’t walk down the driveway,” Williams wrote in an essay for Elle. “When I finally made it to a tree halfway down the driveway, it was a big hurdle for me.”

Six months later, Williams did the improbable — yet again — and was back competing on the tennis court. She made her return at Indian Wells in March 2018 and reached the third round before losing to Venus.

Prior to Williams’ maternity leave, it seemed all but certain she would tie, and perhaps surpass, Margaret Court’s longstanding record of most Grand Slam singles titles of all time, and she wasted no time early in her comeback trying to achieve the feat. She reached two major finals, at Wimbledon and the US Open, in 2018 but lost in both, including during a controversial match against Osaka in New York. Despite not hoisting a major trophy in 2018, Serena was named the Associated Press’ Female Athlete of the Year and the Laureus Sportswoman of the Year.

There were two more finals in 2019, again at Wimbledon and the US Open, and still she was unable to get past 23.

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want that record,” Serena wrote in her essay for Vogue. “Obviously I do. But day to day, I’m really not thinking about her. If I’m in a Grand Slam final, then yes, I am thinking about that record. Maybe I thought about it too much, and that didn’t help. The way I see it, I should have had 30-plus Grand Slams.

“I had my chances after coming back from giving birth. I went from a C-section to a second pulmonary embolism to a Grand Slam final. I played while breastfeeding. I played through postpartum depression. But I didn’t get there. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. I didn’t show up the way I should have or could have. But I showed up 23 times, and that’s fine. Actually it’s extraordinary.”

But in her inability to reach the record, her drive to compete, as well as her obvious love for the game, resonated far beyond the tennis court. And for other players, it helped prove having a child didn’t mean the end of one’s career.

“Before, women had to give up on their careers in order to have a family, but the more examples you have of women doing it all, and juggling all the hats, only makes it seem more realistic,” said Townsend, who gave birth to her son in 2021 and returned to the tour earlier this year. “And Serena not only came back, but reached four Slam finals. She made me believe it was possible for me to return, too. If you see it [being done], you can believe it for yourself.”

Serena has become a successful entrepreneur, with multiple businesses — including her own venture capital firm aimed at funding projects by underrepresented founders — and lucrative partnerships. Despite playing a limited schedule in 2021, she remained in the top two of the highest-paid female athletes in the world, behind only Osaka. While both Serena and Venus were initially criticized for having off-the-court interests earlier in their careers — former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash famously questioned her dedication and called Serena a “lost cause” in a newspaper column in 2007 — today it’s standard fare for athletes, and most of the top women’s tennis players have a range of other projects.

“Not only did Serena and Venus open the door for Black players, but now [Serena and Venus] are opening it in so many avenues, from clothing design to venture capital, and they’re kicking that door wide open,” said Megan Bradley-Rose, a former professional tennis player, who is biracial, and now the managing director of major events for the USTA. “They’re continuing to do the hard work and blazing this trail for everyone. When you see someone that looks like you, or comes from a similar background as you, do something, it allows you to believe it’s possible.”

Already a part owner of the National Women’s Soccer League’s Angel City FC and the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, Williams will have more opportunities to grow her ownership empire and companies in retirement. In her essay, she said she also hoped to expand her family in the near future by having another child with husband Alexis Ohanian.

With her countless accolades and trophies gathered over her 27-year career, Williams will remain in the conversation as the greatest tennis player of all time for generations to come, and her decades of dominance will be hard, if not impossible, to replicate.

But it has always been about more than results and titles, and her legacy will remain part of the bigger Williams sisters story. Venus, 42, hasn’t announced yet when she will retire, but it’s clear that an era is ending.

“I can’t think of two sisters who are more loyal and joined at supporting each other than the two of them,” said Stacey Allaster, formerly the chairperson and CEO of the WTA and now the US Open tournament director. “It’s remarkable to see that commitment to each other. They are certainly two independent adults now with separate lives but from a tennis perspective, it’s hard to imagine one without the other.

“It’s just an incredible story that no one could have scripted. Two Black women, and their family, helped shake up our sport. We owe them a lot, and it’s up to us to continue to make the sport even more inclusive and keep their legacy alive.”

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