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Tennis

Serena Williams Played Her Way To Mythos

Serena Williams of the United States reacts in the third set against Ajla Tomlijanovic of Australia during their Women's Singles Third Round match on Day Five of the 2022 US Open at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 02, 2022.
Sarah Stier/Getty Images

It is often said, and has been said plenty of times in the past few weeks, that Serena Williams transcends tennis. Watching her first-round victory at her final U.S. Open over Danka Kovinic, I wanted nothing more than to firmly situate her back in tennis. I didn’t expect how tear-jerking it’d be to see her crackling again after she’d faltered in her tune-up matches this summer. For all Serena is now, as a mononym, she is never more magnetic than when she is at the baseline, swinging, mugging, fist-pumping, sliding into a full split, half-keeling over in celebratory fury. And that part of her is finally receding into the background.

There are dozens of possible ways to interpret Serena Williams as a person. After her retirement—or “evolution,” as she prefers—I find myself sticking to the most elemental way: I think of her as a pure tennis player. These are the perils of transcendence. As a kid coming into my love of tennis during her multi-phase, never-ending prime, I was surprised by how little attention was directed to what she actually did on the court. That’s because she was also so much else. Sports may never supply a more mythic, more American narrative than a girl from Compton amassing 23 major singles titles in tennis. When a person comes to symbolize so much more than an overdeveloped lawn sport—when race and gender and class and body and fashion and celebrity all collide in one corner of cultural history that seems silly to sum up as a “tennis career”—nobody wants to talk about your backhand anymore. I get it. But she will still persist in public life and all those other domains. “I’ll still be crazy, I’ll still be intense, I’ll still be around,” she promised the rapturous audience at Arthur Ashe Stadium after her first-round match. Serena Williams will still be a venture capitalist and red-carpet staple. Only the tennis champion is disappearing, but that’s the facet I’ll miss most. As her A-game grew scarce in recent years, it felt important to preserve that memory for posterity, for all the people who never got to see her kick ass in so many different guises, against so many pseudo-rivals, over so many distinct eras. 

Everything began at the baseline, at that notch in the middle, where Serena devised the greatest serve to ever punish the tour. Her serve is the foundation of her dominance, the determinant of how smoothly she won her many trophies. Like any perfected art, it contains its own endlessly replicable ritual: five bounces before a first serve, two or three before a second. A placid and unreadable ball toss. “A lot of other people, there’s a lot of herky-jerkiness going on,” childhood coach Rick Macci said. “With Serena, it’s like there’s an egg in her hand and she places it on a shelf.”

With the egg laid on shelf, Serena could crack it anyway she liked. Driving up to the ball with her strong legs, she could pop it with singular pace and placement, regularly reaching the 120-mph range in a way few women have, and doing so at 5-foot-9, without the vantage of the stereotypically tall big server. From that same indistinguishable ball toss, she could go for a kick or slice. Careers are made—and lengthened—by the free points that a world-class serve earns. Generations of foes know her knack for the timely, liberating ace on break point.

But what I’ll remember most is Serena’s concussive ground game, which flared back to life in her second-round match against Anett Kontaveit. She hit both forehand and backhand with an open stance, stepping out laterally to the ball, with her body still square to her opponent. It was efficient and time-saving footwork, which granted her a bit more time to handle a fast-moving ball and crack it right back. Her groundstrokes are deeply ingrained in the memory of anyone who watched her in full swing. It’s hard to forget that rolling topspin forehand, with the follow-through swooping across her crown as momentum lofted her feet a few inches off the court, or the way her two-handed backhand unfurled like a wing, eager and early, poised to crush the ball in any direction.

Where the rank-and-file WTA baseliner might be content to fight cross-court wars of attrition, Serena was always a student of redirection and unrelenting pace. To watch a peak Serena point unfold was to see an opponent sent staggering onto her back foot, again and again, as the champion sought out the softest point on the defense and planted the ball there with conviction—point construction without patience or mercy. As a pioneer of modern baseline bully-ball, she has inspired legions of imitators—Naomi Osaka chief among them—but nobody has managed to replicate her efficacy or longevity. Even as injuries and age taxed her movement, her serve and shot selection nearly made up for the difference. I say “nearly” because when she still had her peak straight-line speed and change-of-direction, she was an offensive juggernaut that won’t be matched in our lifetimes.

That has at least something to do with Serena’s power. She said in 2017 that she had a “love-hate relationship with the idea of power”; it’s not hard to figure out why this might be. When critics talk about her power, the implication is that it’s “just” power—that her success came simply and blindly out of her strong physique. As if her body is a blunt workaround for the hard-won polish of a more technical (or perhaps less melanated) player. This line of thinking misunderstands the relationship between having visible biceps and hitting a tennis ball hard, which could be countered by a few minutes of watching some paper-thin junior player bash winners. It implies that bodily strength somehow lies outside the fair criteria for what makes an athlete spectacular, as opposed to being a central component of it, and something mindfully cultivated in its own right.  Also, it plainly misunderstands Serena’s myriad tennis gifts, like anticipation of her opponent’s next attack, supernatural timing on the ball on the run, make-work improvisation when caught in the mid-court, and steeliness under duress.

But the reductive “power” argument has followed her throughout her career anyway, not without her notice. “In the beginning I didn’t like it when they said that my sister and I were power players. I thought, I don’t hit as hard as a Monica Seles,” Williams told Vogue in 2017. “In Australia last year, I read that Maria Sharapova’s backhand and forehand are as good or better than mine, and that the only reason I win is that my serve is bigger. I was like, wait a minute, please. I place my serve. And what about my volleys? My speed? I’m the player who’s hitting angles. I’m the player who moves you. I use my brain, and that’s really why I win.”

The truth is that Serena really does smack the soul out of the ball, but it’s not all she does. If that alone were enough, then Madison Keys, Jelena Ostapenko, and Aryna Sabalenka would be swimming in major titles. Power is the necessary but not sufficient condition for the kind of sustained dominance that Serena has managed. 

Another necessary condition would be an inextinguishable desire to win, or rather its mirror image. “I hate losing more than I love winning,” Williams said in 2013. “It could be a game of cards—I don’t like it. I really don’t like it.” This manifested in so many ways, mostly—duh—in winning, but also in the way she navigated politics on the court and in the locker room. There’s a complaint often lodged by boomers that has a shred of truth for me: Today’s athletes tend to extend compassion to each other, and avoid the fruitful malice harbored by prior generations. Serena preceded that trend toward softness, and some of my favorite anecdotes about her key in on this sharp edge to her persona.

Maria Sharapova’s memoir Unstoppable: My Life So Far contains one infamous secondhand quote from Serena, allegedly uttered after the 2004 Wimbledon final in which a then-teenage Russian upset the defending champ in straight sets. The words were relayed to Sharapova by an unnamed friend, who claimed to have heard it straight from Williams herself: “I will never lose to that little bitch again.” Serena nearly made good on that possibly apocryphal promise, losing just once more in the year-end final that year, and then racking up a 20-2 record over the next 15 years, the most lopsided of her many rivalries. “I always said her ball somehow lands in my strike zone. I don’t know. It’s just perfect for me,” she said in 2019, after their final meeting, wiping the last drops of blood off her hands.

Sometimes, that competitive spirit is somewhat incompatible with nurturing the next generation. Sloane Stephens, a rising black star who grew up with a Serena poster on her wall, dispatched Williams in the quarterfinals of the 2013 Australian Open. In the aftermath, Stephens noted that Serena had turned to ice, ignoring her in person, unfollowing her on Twitter, deleting her off Blackberry messenger. The only public words Serena had on that matter was a veiled tweet, two days after the loss: “I made you.”

These details are delicious. They are worthy of inclusion in any of the encomiums written now or in the years to come. Serena Williams is the most faithful inheritor of the Michael Jordan mentality anywhere in American sports. And from this same passion erupts all the on-court flare-ups—like threatening to shove a ball down a lineswoman’s throat after a foot-fault call at the 2009 U.S. Open, or calling an umpire a “hater” and “unattractive inside” in 2011, or the tediously litigated 2018 meltdown versus Naomi Osaka. I don’t see any of these moments as dents that need to be buffed out to preserve a Highlights-magazine facade of sportsmanship. It’s all part of the rich psychological loam that allows a real human being with a beating heart to win 73 singles titles. And this particular human being managed to endure and accomplish all of that after facing a stadium full of jeers as a teenager, two decades of leering media scrutiny, and thousands of little unknown slights that never entered the public record.

Serena is Serena exactly because of this fire. I detect a stilted, sterile tone in lots of the late-career commentary, after she became a cultural institution, and especially now that she’s on her way out. I feel like I owe it to her to remember her in her triumphs as much as her spats. It’s hard to imagine anyone without that kind of fire managing to thrive in the face of everything that stood in her way. Contemporary players might not have to reduce rivals and umpires to ash, but perhaps they didn’t have to find their way in the kind of world that she did.

The greatest champions should be remembered in all their idiosyncratic intensity. Winning like they do is, in its way, a pathology, one more entertaining than the many other pathologies rewarded by society. When Serena had nothing left to prove, she opted for a selective schedule, conserving her energy for the biggest titles. Toward the end of her reign, after giving birth to her daughter, she still dominated the successive generation. In 2018 and 2019 she cut a path to four major finals, two against veterans, two against breakout youngsters, each one an opportunity to nudge her major count to 24. That would have tied the record of Margaret Court, whose career preceded the “Open Era” that frames most modern tennis records, but is nevertheless the mark to beat in the books. Williams lost all four of those finals. The most poignant part of her farewell letter in Vogue might be the paragraph that dwells on that unchecked box.

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want that record. Obviously I do,” she wrote. “The way I see it, I should have had 30-plus grand slams. I had my chances after coming back from giving birth. I went from a C-section to a second pulmonary embolism to a grand slam final. I played while breastfeeding. I played through postpartum depression. But I didn’t get there. 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.” She let us know, years ago, that there would be no half-assing this job. “I’ll tell you this much: I won’t win less. Either I win, or I don’t play,” Williams said in 2017, after winning the Australian Open while pregnant. Five years later, she found herself on the other half of that ultimatum. A Serena who could tolerate a season on tour at anything below major title contention is no Serena at all, and certainly not the one we were so lucky to witness.

The question raised by this unexpectedly electric U.S. Open run is whether this is in fact the end of her tennis. Her third-round pyrotechnics against Ajla Tomljanovic may well have been a case against hanging up the rackets for good. The mobility was back, allowing her to lean into every bruising groundstroke. While there were slow stretches at the end of the first set and the start of the third, whenever it seemed possible that the ball in front of her would be her last, Serena whipped her game back up to vintage quality. She could not have struck a more apt note for her ending. It took six match points to retire Serena Williams; that sounds about right.

“I’m literally playing my way into this and getting better—I should’ve started sooner this year,” Williams said on court Friday after she lost to Tomljanovic. And while she waved away the possibility of a return, she did drop a tantalizing bread crumb: “I always did love Australia, though.” Serena is now 40 and said she wants to have another kid, which would require a layoff and recovery like the one she took five years ago. For me, and everyone else getting misty-eyed in the stands, it’s time to accept that this was the final glimpse of her tennis, while secretly nursing the hope of another, and forever replaying the indelible visions of the past.

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