It’s rare for an athlete to transcend their sport so much that the general public knows them on a first-name basis. Be it from cultural influence, fashion or general public allure, they become a global icon. In recent years, it’s been Tiger in golf, Lebron in basketball, and certainly Serena in tennis.
Just 10 days ago, in Flushing Meadows, under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium, a crowd of almost 24 thousand leaned on the edge of their seats, at the beck and call of Serena’s every move.
The draw of Serena Williams was indisputable in the final tournament of her career at the US Open in New York. The fans were there just to see her, as if the tennis was just an added bonus. She was so captivating, you had to put down whatever you were doing and watch. Whether you knew about tennis or not; she was the event; she was the moment.
Serena’s persona has drawn so many people to her over her 27 years of professional tennis. Turning pro in 1995, one year after her older sister Venus, she won her first major title, just four years later, at the age of 17.
Many people know Serena for her fashion, activism, or her incontestable cultural influence. As someone who’s had such a big imprint on the tennis and sports worlds in so many ways outside of her actual play, it’s easy to forget how amazing of an athlete Williams actually is.
Over the span of her career, for Serena to even be a good or mediocre level pro tennis player would be more than enough to count as beating the odds. Serena grew up a poor black girl from Compton, California. Her incredible origin story was prominently depicted in the 2021 Academy Award-winning movie King Richard. The fact that she not only excelled at tennis at a young age and dominated an overwhelmingly white, country-club sport, but has also served as such an incredible trailblazer and influence in tennis, makes it that much more impressive that she is now considered one of, if not the greatest tennis player of all time.
Great tennis players are measured by the number of professional tournaments they win. The legends, like Serena, are measured by their performances in the pro tour’s four most prestigious and significant tournaments: The Australian Open, Roland Garros (the French Open), Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, better known as the Grand Slams.
The Australian and U.S. Opens are played on hard courts in Melbourne and New York respectively. The French Open is played on clay courts in Paris, and Wimbledon, Tennis’ oldest tournament, is played in London. Most legends are great on one or two surfaces. Serena won on all of them.
Her domination at the Grand Slams is incomparable. Winning her first Slam in 1999, and her latest in 2017, Serena’s 23 singles Slams are the most ever in the open era for men or women. Not only that, but she’s also won 14 doubles Slams with her sister Venus and never lost a doubles final.
Over her two decades in tennis, she spent 312 weeks at number one in the world, including five singles tour finals, four Olympic gold medals, and a career 85 percent singles win percentage, with 858 total wins. She also boasts six Grand Slams in which she didn’t drop a single set the entire tournament. That’s like an NBA team going undefeated in the playoffs, and winning the finals six different times on three different playing surfaces.
Even more impressive than her staggering career numbers and accomplishments is her incredible longevity as a player. Beginning her professional career at fourteen years old, she didn’t retire until she turned 40. And her dominance barely slowed down, even towards the end of her career. In 2017, she won her record-breaking 23rd career Grand Slam while 20 weeks pregnant, without losing a set the entire tournament. None of her coaches or tournament officials even knew she was pregnant until after her win.
Serena’s longevity and career accomplishments are comparable to, if not much more impressive than, many of the greatest athletes in history. Many great NBA players come to mind. Bill Russell won 11 NBA championships during the ‘50s and 60’s. Michael Jordan, commonly touted as the greatest basketball player ever, won six NBA championships in his 15 seasons. Kobe played for 20 years and won five. In other words, the three of them won 22 titles combined…which is one less than Serena won by herself.
The name “Serena” doesn’t just belong alongside the names of other tennis legends. It belongs at the top of the list of the greatest athletes of all time.