Tennis legend Serena Williams’ farewell tour

In what may be the final tournament of her storied career, the great champion will say goodbye to the sport at the US Open in New York

Serena Williams practices for the 2022 US Open in New York.
Serena Williams practices for the 2022 US Open in New York.ELSA (AFP)

Serena Williams woke up around 8am in her New York City home. It was Sunday morning and time to practice for the US Open Tennis Championships that always begins on the last Monday in August. It might have been the last practice of a professional career that began many years ago when her coach and father first introduced Serena and older sister Venus to the world. Serena is slated to play Danka Kovinic from Montenegro in the first round of the tournament.

As Serena practiced, a select group of spectators looked on with what seemed like a touch of sadness as the tennis world contemplates the end of an era. The most dominant player of the modern “Open Era,” the fierce competitor is slowly exiting the world of professional tennis, to be followed sooner or later by giants like Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer. Other women have preceded her, but none had a career quite like The Queen.

“She’s on a par with Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Tom Brady. She’s one of the greatest athletes in history. Everything she’s done to get where she is… it’s impressive,” said John McEnroe. “She’s exactly where she deserves to be — an extraordinary tennis player, but above all, an icon.” It’s the unanimous opinion of a transcendental and complex woman, skilled at marketing herself, and prone to extremes. In good times and in bad, she always stretched the limits, earning a reputation that extends beyond the countless tennis trophies she’s won over the last 20 years. Williams first picked up a tennis racket when she was three, a child prodigy who later developed into an overwhelming champion. But she was also a controversial rebel, an entrepreneur and a mother along the way.

Her life and career were exceptional from the very beginning. People who know her well say that Compton, the working-class suburb of Los Angeles where she was raised, has always been part of Serena. One of her five sisters was murdered in a gang-related shooting there, a key turning point in Serena’s life that stoked the fire inside. The unwritten rules of Compton have never left her.

Compton

“Serena and Venus liked to throw their weight around in the locker room,” said a woman who has been in professional tennis for 30 years. “She’s special — no doubt — and her attitude helped her get this far. Serena and her sister liked to intimidate, but Serena more so. I remember how they would walk down an aisle, and if people didn’t move out of the way, they didn’t hesitate to give them a push or an angry look. It was a way of saying, ‘’We’ve arrived… we’re here’ and there’s no stopping us. That was her mentality, from beginning to end.”

Venus and Serena, during a doubles match at Roland Garros in 2018.
Venus and Serena, during a doubles match at Roland Garros in 2018.THOMAS SAMSON (AFP)

A well-known tennis coach who prefers to remain anonymous said that the Williams sisters could often seem arrogant. “They have their own unwritten rules. I’ve seen them react a certain way to some situations because of how they were raised. But aside from that, we’re talking about one of the best players in history and a unique personality.”

A vital and modern institution

Family has been the mainstay of Serena’s career. Her father, Richard, shaped and launched her into the world. But her mother, Oracene, and her sisters (and inseparable dogs) have also played a fundamental role in forging the iron fist and competitive spirit that has won her 23 major championships, 73 singles titles, 23 doubles titles, four Olympic gold medals, the Federation Cup, and 319 weeks ranked as the world’s top player. Serena has made this journey hand-in-hand with Venus, and the two will compete as a doubles pair in the US Open for the first time since 2018.

Serena, this week during a visit to the New York Stock Exchange.
Serena, this week during a visit to the New York Stock Exchange.Michael Nagle (Bloomberg)

The Women’ Tennis Association (WTA) has been touting the 2022 US Open as “Serena’s last dance.” Launched in 1973, the WTA was fortunate to have Billie Jean King lead the fledging pro tennis circuit and defend the rights of female players. The WTA has evolved into a vital institution known for its ideological resolve, its media popularity, and its commercial success. Serena Williams has played no small part in this. During her career, the WTA has grown steadily, and Serena has always been willing to use her platform to demand equal pay for women.

“She has meant a lot for tennis in general, not just for women’s tennis, but also for men’s. She has brought tennis to television sets in countries where it was almost unknown,” said Mats Wilander, the Swedish former champion. “If it wasn’t for her and Venus, I wouldn’t have become a tennis player,” said fellow American Coco Gauff. “Before her, we didn’t really have a [black female] role model. She has dominated for three generations, not just one or two, and that’s something no one else has achieved.” The 18-year-old pro tennis player is inspired by Serena’s leadership beyond the sport and her activism in combatting racism.

“She’s more than just a sports figure”

At the Indian Wells Masters Series Tennis Tournament in 2001, an injury forced Venus Williams to pull out of a semifinal match against her sister, Serena, just minutes before it was scheduled to start. The crowd booed the sisters. “It was a shameful day for America,” wrote Richard Williams in his book Black and White: The Way I See It. The Williams sisters responded to the boos by boycotting the tournament for 14 years. “I’m ready now,” said Serena when she returned to play at Indian Wells. “It’s time to say, ‘We, as a people, as Americans, can be better.’ If your social position allows you to stand up and speak up, to be an example, why not do it?”

Serena, in 2017 during a match in Melbourne.
Serena, in 2017 during a match in Melbourne.Andy Brownbill (AP)

Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, Serena was once rumored to be friends with former President Donald Trump. She squelched that gossip in 2016, responding to John McEnroe’s story about how Trump offered her US$1 million to play tennis with him. “I don’t vote because of my religion. I’m not involved in politics at all. Everybody knows everybody in Palm Beach,” said Williams, who sold her home there last year.

“She changed the sport, and I am so grateful to her. She is the greatest ever,” said her friend Naomi Osaka, who like Gauff, is another potential heiress to the Williams throne. “I try to emulate how she used her position and intimidated others to become number one,” admitted Iga Świątek, a Polish player currently ranked world No. 1. “She’s not just an athlete, she’s a legend and a great ambassador for our sport who broke records,” praised Rafael Nadal. As she watches the clock count down on her professional tennis career, the champion naturally looks at her own family’s future. “I started a family and now I want to make it grow,” says the genuine Serena.

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