Serena Williams, Ashleigh Barty, US Open, Grand Slam, Tennis, Wang Qiang, Karolina Pliskova
Williams, who last won a major at the 2017 Australian Open and hasn't won the US Open since 2014, is seeking a 24th career Slam title to match Margaret Court's all-time record. Photo" @USOpen/Twitter

Serena Williams: A rare champion both on and off the court

It was September 1999, and 17-year-old Serena Williams announced her arrival on the big stage with her first Grand Slam title at the US Open. Now, 23 years later, at the same place, curtains are set to come down on her stellar career.

Between 1999 and 2022, Serena, with her powerful and aggressive game, became a legend, inspiring a generation of kids to take up the sport not just in the US but around the world.

Last month, she announced that she would bid adieu to tennis. She wrote in Vogue that she is “evolving away from tennis”.

Also read: Serena Williams not done yet

“I have never liked the word ‘retirement’. It doesn’t feel like a modern word to me. I’ve been thinking of this as a transition, but I want to be sensitive about how I use 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. A few years ago, I quietly started Serena Ventures, a venture capital firm. Soon after that, I started a family. I want to grow that family,” the 40-year-old said.

For many, Serena is the greatest American tennis player. And, the ride to the top was never smooth.

Highs, lows, controversies

During her illustrious career, Serena dominated the game for two decades. She spent 319 weeks ranked as the No. 1 player in the world.

Also, she was world No. 1 for 186 consecutive weeks from February 2013 to September 2016. She won 73 singles and 23 tournaments.

Besides 23 Grand Slam singles titles (seven Australian Open, seven Wimbledon, six US Open and three French Open), Serena won 14 women’s doubles (all with her sister Venus) and two mixed doubles majors. She also won four Olympic gold medals (three in women’s doubles).

Also read: Tennis court to runway: Serena Williams hits Fashion Week

The last of her 23 titles came at the Australian Open in 2017 while she was pregnant with her daughter Alexis Olympia. In 2017, Serena married Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian.

Serena could not win every Grand Slam in the same calendar year, but she held all four titles at the same time (2002-03 and 2014-15), and the term “Serena Slam” was coined for the same.

Like any professional player, Serena too endured a lot of injuries during her career. In 2021, she had to retire “heartbroken”, from her first-round match due to a leg injury. After that, she had to pull out of Tokyo Olympics, US Open, and the Australian Open this year.

In her return after more than year at Wimbledon 2022, she suffered a first-round loss. Recent times have been tough for her and saw he slip out of top 100 in the rankings. As of August 29, she was 413.

Serena had her share of on-court controversies when she was fined for threatening a line judge at the US Open 2009 semi-final, which she lost to Kim Clijsters.

In US Open 2018 final, she was penalised by the chair umpire after receiving coaching signals from her coach Patrick Mouratoglou from the player’s box. In the same match against Japan’s Naomi Osaka, she showed her frustration, broke her racquet and received a point penalty. After losing her cool, she lost the final too and threw away the chance to tie Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam titles.

Racial abuse

Growing up in Compton in Los Angeles, California, Serena and her family had to face racial abuse. But his father Richard Williams toughened up both Serena and her sister Venus. He let them face the abuse.

“In order to be successful, you must prepare for the unexpected – and I wanted to prepare for that. Criticism can bring the best out of you… , Criticism is one of the greatest things, I think, that we’ve been trained to live through,” Williams recalled in an interview with CNN’s Open Court in 2015.

Right from her younger days to her playing career, Serena has spoken about racial abuse she faced and discrimination.

One of the major incidents was in 2001 when she, as a 19-year-old, and her family faced abuse at the Indian Wells tournament. Writing about that in her autobiography, Serena said, “all I could see was a sea of rich people – mostly older, mostly white – standing and booing lustily, like some kind of genteel lynch mob.”

The booing episode led to the Williams sisters boycotting the tournament for 14 years.

In 2020, Serena said she was “underpaid (and) undervalued” as a Black woman in tennis. She supported the Black Lives Movement and said how technology had helped black people to raise their voices.

“Now, we as Black people have a voice – and technology has been a huge part of that. We see things that have been hidden for years; the things that we as people have to go through. This has been happening for years. People just couldn’t pull out their phones and video it before,” she told British Vogue’s November 2020 issue.

“I think for a minute they (white people) started – not to understand, because I don’t think you can understand – but they started to see. I was like: well, you didn’t see any of this before? I’ve been talking about this my whole career. It’s been one thing after another,” she added.

‘Want people to be inspired by my story’

At the ongoing US Open, after her first-round victory, Serena said her legacy would be that people get inspired by her journey.

“(When people hear my name) I just want people to think how hard one tries. But yeah, it’s so important to give your all no matter what you do, no matter how many obstacles you face. Like, I’ve been down and out so many times in the public eye. I’ve had to come back and, you know, you just never give up.

“It sounds cliched but that really means something. No matter what you’re going through out there and I just want people to be inspired by my story. I’m from Compton, California you know and I made it,” she said.

With Serena playing her final tournament at Flushing Meadows in New York, she will be hoping to bow out on a high, with a record-tying 24 Grand Slam trophy.

Can she end her journey in New York, like the way she started at the same stage in 1999?

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