Her response: She prefers to be characterized as “one of the greatest athletes of all time.”
That one, a brief response from Williams says a lot – about her unique talent with a racket in handon her status as an icon, on her will to defend herself, on the reasons why women’s sport should not be thought of differently from men’s sport.
It all came to mind on Tuesday, when Williams indicated she was preparing to quit her professional tennis career as the start of the US Open approaches on August 29 and her 41st birthday nears next month.
Yes, with cries of “Come on! Marking the run, she won the most singles championships in tennis’ professional era, which began in 1968; more than 22 for Steffi Graf or Rafael Nadal, more than 21 for Novak Djokovic, more than 20 for Roger Federer, more than 18 for Chris Evert or Martina Navratilova, more than anyone. And, yes, Williams has won a total of 73 singles titles at the touring level and spent more than six years of weeks at number one. And she teamed up with her older sister Venus to win 14 Grand Slam women’s doubles titles. And then there are the four Olympic gold medals. Etc. Etc.
Yet mere numbers cannot capture all that Williams has represented during a glittering career that began as a teenager in the 1990s and is notable not only for her successes but also for her longevity, including including a record 10 major championships after turning 30.
“She lasted longer than most, if not all, women’s tennis pros. She transcended tennis and became a leader on many important cultural, social and gender issues. She’s lived an extraordinary life,” Evert wrote in a text message to The Associated Press, “and will no doubt continue to smash through the glass ceiling in the future.”
Indeed, what Williams has done without a racquet in hand is rather remarkable and stretches beyond millions of endorsement deals; flirtations with acting; interest in fashion design and penchant for taking the catwalk to the field with jumpsuits and knee-high boots and whatever else she decided to try; fame and its place in pop culture; and, most recently, working as a venture capitalist (“78% of our portfolio happens to be businesses started by women and people of color, because that’s who we are,” Williams said).
“It’s important to step back and think about how much Serena has brought to our sport and what she has accomplished on and off the court,” said Steve Simon, head of the WTA Women’s Tennis Tour. “She is one of the greatest champions, an entrepreneur, a mother, an investor in women’s business ventures and an inspiration to women and girls everywhere.”
Williams has spoken about being black in her sport – she was the first to win a Grand Slam tournament since Althea Gibson in the 1950s – and in her country. She stayed away from a tournament in California for years after she and her father heard racist taunts there. She talked about being a woman in tennis, being a woman who had to deal with complications during childbirth, being a mother (her daughter, Olympia, will be 5 on September 1 and Williams wants to have another baby).
She and Venus have helped their sport reach a wider audience and helped engage more of society in their sport (Coco Gauff, the 18-year-old African-American who was a finalist at Roland-Garros in May, said Tuesday that she plays what she called “a predominantly white sport” because she “saw someone who looked like me dominating the game”).
“I don’t particularly like thinking about my heritage. I get asked a lot of questions about it and I never quite know what to say,” Williams wrote in a essay published by Vogue magazine. “But I like to think that with the opportunities I’ve been given, female athletes feel like they can be themselves on the court. They can play aggressively and pump their fists. They can be strong but beautiful. They can wear whatever they want and say whatever they want and kick their ass and be proud of it all.
There were, of course, moments of which she was perhaps not so proud, confrontations with match officials that led to a point or a match in the US Open defeats against Naomi Osaka. and Kim Clijsters – perhaps the kind of episodes she was referring to in her essay when she said, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my career. Mistakes are learning experiences, and I embrace those moments. I’m far from perfect, but I’ve also received a lot of criticism, and I’d like to think that I went through some tough times as a professional tennis player so the next generation could have an easier life.
Her serve was a gift, just as the powerful groundstrokes that she and Venus – her opponent in the family’s nine Grand Slam finals – have been integral to the game. Likewise, there was an unyielding will and desire to always come out on top, whether the person on the other side of the net was Big Sis or anyone else, whether they were trying to earn a point in a game or make a point in an interview.
“I want to be awesome. I want to be perfect,” Williams said. “I know perfection doesn’t exist, but no matter how perfect I was, I never wanted to stop until successful.”
In tennis, of course, and beyond.