The debate over who is the greatest athlete of all-time is, of course, subjective.
How do you compare people who play different sports? How do you evaluate different eras and put them in proper context? Is it about pure athleticism or athletic achievement?
No matter what criteria you choose to use in this debate, or how you define greatest, you can not have the discussion without mentioning Serena Williams.
And for one last tournament, fans from all around the world will be able to witness that greatness as Serena announced she will be moving away from tennis following the 2022 U.S. Open.
“I have never liked the word retirement. It doesn’t feel like a modern word to me,” Serena wrote in an essay in Vogue. “I’ve been thinking of this as a transition, but I want to be sensitive about how I used that word, which means something very specific and important to a community of people. Maybe the best word to describe what I’m up to is evolution. I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me.”
Even in retirement, or “transitioning”, Serena does things her own way. Growing up in Compton, Calif. both her and her older sister Venus were tennis prodigies from an extremely young age thanks to the coaching of their father, Richard.
Though unconventional, Richard helped coach his girls to become the top junior players in the country despite not having them pursue the same pathway most junior players go through. And even when they broke through on the tour, Serena and Venus were not completely accepted as the tennis world had never seen before anything like what they brought to the tennis courts.
And all that did was motivate them more, and through the hard-work and dedication, Serena became one of the most dominant athletes in the world. Her career resume is as long as a CVS receipt, and includes 23 Grand Slam singles titles, an Open Era record, 319 weeks spent as the world number one, including 186 consecutive weeks which ties a record, and finished as the year-end number one on five different occasions.
Between the 2022 French Open and the 2003 Australian Open, Serena won all four majors to complete the non-calendar year Grand Slam. From 2014-2015, she completed the second “Serena Slam” by winning four straight majors, which was part of a run that saw her win eight out of 13 majors overall during that span.
But her impact goes far beyond the wins and losses on the tennis court. The arrival of the Williams sisters ushered in a new era of tennis.
Photo Credit: Daniel Shirley/USTA
“When the Williams sisters emerged on the scene in the late 1990s as teenagers, the women’s game changed forever,” wrote journalist Ja Allen in Bleacher Report. “The serve became more than getting play underway, it became a weapon—the underpinning of the new power game in women’s tennis. The Williams sisters were big, powerful, athletic women who grew to dominate women’s tennis and change the game forever. Their stinging serves alongside potent groundstrokes ushered in an era of power players to which women’s tennis had never seen before.”
They not only ushered in a new era, they dominated it. And while Venus would have more of the success early on when they first broke through, it was Serena who would go on to become the most dominant force in tennis. It was her constant need to be perfect, and always improving, that drove her to be the player she would become.
“Unlike Venus, who’s always been stoic and classy, I’ve never been one to contain my emotions,” she writes in Vogue. “I remember learning to write my alphabet for kindergarten and not doing it perfectly and crying all night. I was so angry about it. I’d erase and rewrite that ‘A’ over and over, and my mother let me stay up all night while my sisters were in bed. That’s always been me. I want to be great. I want to be perfect. I know perfect doesn’t exist, but whatever my perfect was, I never wanted to stop until I got it right.
To me that’s kind of the essence of being Serena: expecting the best from myself and proving people wrong. There were so many matches I won because something made me angry or someone counted me out. That drove me. I’ve built a career on channeling anger and negativity and turning it into something good.”
Serena accomplished all she could in the tennis world, and will go down as one of the greatest athletes to ever live. She will take that drive and passion into other endeavors in her life, which includes her own venture capital firm she founded a few years ago. She is also the mother of five-year-old Olympia, and she says she wants to expand that family, as Olympia says she wants to be a big sister.
It isn’t exactly fair that women athletes have to make the decision sometimes between having a child or continuing to play, something that male athletes do not have to worry about.
“Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family. I don’t think it’s fair. If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labor of expanding our family,” she writes. “Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had the opportunity. Don’t get me wrong: I love being a woman, and I loved every second of being pregnant with Olympia. I was one of those annoying women who adored being pregnant and was working until the day I had to report to the hospital—although things got super complicated on the other side. And I almost did do the impossible; a lot of people don’t realize that I was two months pregnant when I won the Australian Open in 2017. But I’m turning 41 this month, and something’s got to give.”
Serena will make her last professional appearance at this year’s U.S. Open, a fitting curtain call on her career as she has won the title six times throughout her career. As she says, she isn’t “retiring” from tennis, just transitioning away. Either way, sports fans are lucky to have been able to watch Serena’s career unfold over these last two-plus decades, and she can continue to serve as an inspiration for the next generation of athletes:
“My sister Venus once said that when someone out there says you can’t do something, it is because they can’t do it. But I did do it. And so can you.”
Photo Credit: Michael LeBrecht/USTA
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org