Part I : Serena, the champion
Serena Williams equalled the 22 Grand Slam titles won by Stefanie Graf - only two behind Margaret Court’s all-time record. Impressive statistics, but they only tell half the story behind this exceptional champion. The American is so much more than the sum of her titles – she has become an icon who goes beyond the world of sport and who is responsible, in her own way, for the way society is advancing.
"Too often, people tend to focus primarily on her strength, but there’s far more to her than that." Nathalie Dechy is fulsome in her praise of the 21-time Grand Slam winner. "What makes her exceptional is her will to win and her technique as well," says the French former world No.11 who is now a member of the Roland-Garros steering committee. Dechy believes that modern tennis owes a real debt of gratitude to the Williams sisters, with Serena finishing off the work started by the family. "She and Venus arrived on the scene with their open stance, transferring their weight to the front foot and playing really simplified tennis. At the time it was really modern. And quite apart from that, Serena had an absolutely faultless technique. Why is it that she still has the best service in the world? Because she has strength, sure – exceptional strength – but because she also has a very pure technique on service."
This opinion is one that is widely accepted around the circuit, including among former players such as Marion Bartoli, who is one of a select club to have beaten the American. "With Serena, you don’t have rallies," the 2013 Wimbledon champion recalls. "She attacks you right away, either on service or on return. In terms of adrenaline and pressure, I maybe felt the same thing against other players but I never felt under as much pressure from the first shots." The current crop also agree, including Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the world No.1’s Fed Cup team-mate and reigning French Open doubles champion. "When you play Serena, there are some things you can be sure of. She’s going to try to knock you out with her strength, and she’s going to serve well. She has really perfected the art of turning her service into a consistent weapon. And there’s never any guarantee that, even if you hold your own service, you’ll be able to break hers. I personally think that this puts players who also have a decent service under a lot of pressure, as she is really very difficult to break. Over the years, she’s really worked on making it a weapon. The placement is also tough to read."
"The first question that anyone asks me when they find out I’m a tennis player is: 'have you ever played Venus or Serena?'"
And that is not all. These qualities immediately made Serena an extremely dangerous player on quicker surfaces, but she also managed to rely on – and hone – other skills in order to perfect her game on clay. Straight after winning her first French Open, the American said to her parents: "I’ll be back on this court to lift the trophy again, and next time I’ll speak French." This was not a whim – it was a genuine objective. It took her 11 years to talk to the crowd at Roland-Garros – 11 years of perseverance and hard work to be able to tame a surface on which she has never enjoyed the best of luck. "One of the reasons why Serena is such a tough opponent to beat is obviously her physique," says CoCo Vandeweghe, a fellow member of the US Fed Cup team, "and while this is true on any surface, it’s perhaps what has helped her to find the right formula on clay."
Physique is indeed the key. Dechy, responsible for player relations at Roland-Garros and who played Serena five times in the course of her career, also underlines this point. "People often think of Serena as a sprinter," she explains, "but look at the three-set matches she wins, and the fact that she won her first Grand Slam title in 1999 and it’s now 2016 – both of these things show that she has endurance and exceptional longevity. She has made progress from when she first arrived on the circuit. And why has she started winning more at Roland-Garros? Because she’s worked on sliding, because she now manages to put a bit more oomph into some of the rallies so that she can come inside the baseline. She uses the geometry of the court very well."
Is Serena Williams the ultimate champion? Without a shadow of a doubt. "What she signifies for women’s sport and the impact she has for all of us goes way beyond," says Vandeweghe. "The first question that anyone asks me when they find out I’m a tennis player is: 'have you ever played Venus or Serena? And what’s Serena like?' For a lot of people, she stands alone." She is someone who has achieved another feat, namely making the extraordinary look totally ordinary. Quite literally.
Lindsey Vonn - skier, Olympic champion, double world champion, record-holder for number of world-cup wins (76) and crystal globes (20)
"I've met Serena several times and watched her play at several tournaments. Her athleticism and sheer power is incredible to watch. She represents a strong, determined and historically successful female athlete. As an athlete myself I am impressed by her motivation to keep playing and pushing herself so hard every day at training. By this crazy fire that she still has to win again and again. It's one of the hardest things in the world to do, to continue to stay motivated and keep pushing yourself to win again and again is extremely hard. Hence there aren't many people who can do it. She has an inner strength and determination and that is very inspiring. Do people really realise or measure the sportiv value of all what Serena has already achieved? No. I don't think people realize what they are witnessing until it's in the past. I’m sure she will continue to win until she chooses to retire or until injury slows her down -which hopefully won't happen!- When you have so much success like Serena has had, you transcend sport. Few people, especially women, have done that. Serena has done that. I feel close to her because I am also a very determined and driven person. We definitely have that in common. I wish Serena lots of luck and I hope she continues to win and succeed on and off the court."
Katrina Adams - President of the US Tennis Association
"What a privilege it's been to watch her progress over the years but it’s even more of an honor to see her reach the heights that she has in the last few years, since turning 30. She has truly matured and been a positive spokesperson for women's tennis. Serena, will not only go down as the greatest tennis player of her era but perhaps ever. She will also be known as the greatest athlete ever. Her athleticism, strength, quickness and longevity speak volumes. No other athlete has accomplished such success so late in their career. But one will always wonder 'what if,' when Serena didn't play a full schedule earlier in her career, due to injuries or personal issues. She just might have surpassed their title number, but one will never know. She has definitely been a role model through her accomplishments. However, Serena is her own person and does things her own way. The results speak for themselves and those results are what other young girls strive to accomplish. She definitely has been a motivator for young girls to pick up a racquet and strive to 'Be like Serena.'""