Serena Williams went down swinging in a three-hour match in the third round of the US Open. While the door on her tennis career is not completely shut, many expect her recent US Open run to be her last appearance as a competitor at a major tennis tournament. The 23-time grand slam champion who was playing her way into tournament shape thrived on sheer will during her 2022 tournament, beating number 2 ranked Anett Kontaveit in the second round and survived five match points against Ajla Tomljanovic before losing 7-5, 6-7(4), 6-1. Tomljanovic was calm and played nearly flawless tennis to beat her idol in front of a highly partisan crowd.
Serena Williams dominated opponents with a cannon shot serve, relentless groundstrokes and a fierce determination that could leave others feeling almost shell-shocked by the encounter. She played top-tier tennis for nearly a quarter of a century, turning pro in 1996, spending a record 319 weeks (186 consecutive) at number 1 in women’s singles. Along with the 23 grand slam singles wins (second all-time), Williams also has 14 doubles slam titles. She also owns the Serena Slam for winning all four majors consecutively, but not in the same year. She is also the highest-earning female athlete of all time.
A new standard for women’s tennis
The Williams tennis style was as big as the dreams of a family from Compton. It was also played by Venus, who won seven majors herself. Together, the Williams sisters were bigger, stronger, faster, hit harder, and just seemed to want it more than their early contemporaries on the women’s circuit. This shift in approach prompted former pro and commentator Mary Carillo to label it “big babe tennis.”
Serena and Venus’s success changed the women’s professional tennis standard to a more powerful playing style. To keep up with the sisters, their competitors were required to adapt and become more powerful in their playing style as well.
There was also a sociological shift. Tennis was no longer solely a country club game — women’s professional tennis players now often come from humble origins in Asia, Eastern Europe and other far-flung countries that are literally and metaphorically far from the urban sizzle of New York and the upper crust gentility of Wimbledon.
Comparisons are hard to come by. Sports fans need to look at disruptive game changers like Tiger Woods, Wilt Chamberlain, Wayne Gretzky, the US Women’s National Soccer Team and Simone Byles.
Outside the lines
Serena is a beloved African American folk hero and global icon with 15 million Instagram followers. Like Tiger Woods (who was there to cheer her on in 2022), she drew other black athletes to her sport. Women’s tennis players before (excepting Billie Jean King and a few others) largely kept quiet on and off the court. She and her sister developed businesses and brands outside of tennis and were treated as major celebrities everywhere they went. People love them and often refer to them by their first names as if they were family.
Time for the next phase
Now 41, with a husband and a five-year-old daughter, Olympia, Williams wrote in Vogue Magazine that she is moving on to focus on family (including continued strong bonds with her parents and siblings) and other business ventures. She already has clothing and jewelry lines. The new ventures will likely be substantial undertakings: notably, a venture capital firm Serena Ventures that focuses on investing in businesses that embrace diverse leadership and opportunities. The game will miss her skill and star power, but her impact will be felt for decades as every new champion is measured against her high-water standard.