Game. Set. Serena: a career like no other

The 23-time Grand Slam champion called time on her legendary career at the US Open with a last battle against Ajla Tomljanovic.

 - Alex Sharp

The fact that Serena Williams’ last tournament is the US Open, the same spot where 23 years ago she won the first of her 23 majors, is pretty poetic, pretty symbolic for a career like no other.

The impact of Serena, (how many sports stars are referred to by just their first name?), cannot be overstated.

Scroll down the WTA website page for Serena and the ‘bio’ is an astonishing collection of results and milestone moments.

From a teenage breakout as the first African-American woman in the Open Era to lift a singles major in 1999, to securing the first ‘Serena Slam’ in 2003, it has been a career of sustained and encapsulating success.

96 titles across singles and doubles, including four Olympic gold medals, 319 total weeks as world No.1, the trophy cabinet is somewhat complete.

There was heartbreak along the way – a calendar Grand Slam was disintegrated at hurdle 27 of 28 by Roberta Vinci in the US Open 2015 semi-finals. That loss “broke her heart.”

In archetypal Serena style, she bounced back and remarkably lifted Grand Slam No.23 at Australian Open 2017 eight weeks pregnant with daughter Olympia.

Any perception that the 40-year-old has faded since are off the mark, Serena featured in another four Grand Slam singles finals since that Melbourne triumph, with her worldwide legion of fans desperate for her to surpass Margaret Court’s all-time leading 24 majors.

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want that record,” admitted the all-star American.

“The way I see it, I should have had 30-plus Grand Slams. I had my chances after coming back from giving birth.

“Shoulda, woulda, coulda. I didn’t show up the way I should have or could have. But I showed up 23 times, and that’s fine. Actually it’s extraordinary.”

Venus et Serena Williams Open d'Australie 2017©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

From a pure sporting perspective, Williams will go down as one of the greatest competitors, an athlete who elevated the sport with her explosive raw power, versatile serve, reading of opponents and unquenchable desire to be victorious.

Through countless comebacks, playing within four different decades, Serena managed to remain relevant, in contention and more. Throw into the mix some controversial flashpoints, some sensational, bold fashion statements, on court it’s been one hell of a ride.

Serena Williams Roland-Garros 2015©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

But now is the time for Williams, in her own words with Vogue magazine, to “evolve away” from tennis. It’s an active announcement, a process, which is a real insight into her champion’s mindset.

“That’s always been me. 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,” the American told Vogue. 

“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 channelling anger and negativity and turning it into something good.

“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.”

Serena’s career can’t be considered without the instrumental impact Venus in the conversation too, teaming up for Fed Cup, major doubles and Olympics glory together.

Their story from public courts in Compton, California, coached by their father Richard, is one that was an obvious choice for Hollywood and has now been made into an Oscar-winning movie. 

The family withstood adversity and unfortunately racism in a compelling story of defiance, which won’t be justified in just a few paragraphs in this article.

“I was so sad when I didn’t get all the early opportunities that Venus got, but that helped me. It made me work harder, turning me into a savage fighter,’ explained Serena.

Serena Williams victoire Roland-Garros 2013©Claus Bergmann / FFT

“I’d travel to tournaments with Venus as her hitting partner, and if there was an open slot, I’d play. When she lost, I understood why, and I made sure I wouldn’t lose the same way. It was as if I were playing her matches, too. I’m a good mimic…

“If I hadn’t been in Venus’s shadow, I would never be who I am. When someone said I was just the little sister, that’s when I got really fired up.”

The Williams sisters innovated the women’s side of the sport, harnessing their supreme athletic capabilities and bringing another level of competitiveness on court, whilst away from the confines of the court they strived for equality and spoke out against racism.

Simply put they are icons across all sport, raising the global profile of tennis – featuring in cartoons, songs, movies, you name it.

Countless players hail Serena as their favourite player or main inspiration. On top of her supreme tennis success, the 40-year-old has forged a path for women, in particular black women, to be seen at the very peak of sport, earning the highest cheques to become a billboard name.

For example in 2017, Serena was the only woman on Forbes’ list of Top 100 paid athletes.

It’s not about dollar signs, it’s about perception. Take teenage prodigy Coco Gauff.

“That’s the reason why I play tennis and tennis being a predominantly white sport it definitely helped a lot because I saw somebody who looked like me dominating the game and it made me believe I could dominate too,” revealed the recent Roland-Garros finalist.

“I think that the legacy that she’ll continue to leave throughout her life is something that can inspire many more generations.

“She’s the GOAT. And undisputed too. The GOAT of all GOATs. There will never be another Serena.”

Legacy has been a buzzword surrounding Serena the past couple of months. What about from her viewpoint?

“I’d like to think that thanks to opportunities afforded to me, women athletes feel that they can be themselves on the court. They can play with aggression and pump their fists. They can be strong yet beautiful. They can wear what they want and say what they want and kick butt and be proud of it all,” mused the four-time Olympic gold medallist.

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my career. I’m far from perfect, but I’ve also taken a lot of criticism, and I’d like to think that I went through some hard times as a professional tennis player so that the next generation could have it easier. 

“Over the years, I hope that people come to think of me as symbolising something bigger than tennis. I admire Billie Jean because she transcended her sport. I’d like it to be: Serena is this and she’s that and she was a great tennis player and she won those slams.”

How Serena finished at the US Open was irrelevant, joking recently this decision will give her “freedom,” and that’s fully deserved.

Game. Set. Serena.