Why Serena Williams Is the GOAT of Women's Tennis
Serena Williams making headlines is nothing new. The former child prodigy from Compton, once known as the younger half of the racket-swinging Williams sisters, has been an elite athlete for more than 20 years.
She’s won 72 singles titles and almost 800 singles matches, including more than 320 in Grand Slam play.
She has earned more than $86 million in tennis alone.
And on a human level, she has overcome injury and depression to become a working mother playing at the top of one of the most demanding sports.
But the greatest achievement for Serena Williams is a title no one can take away— greatest female tennis player of all time.
Serena Williams has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, just one off the career mark held by tennis legend Margaret Court, who won 24 Grand Slam titles during the Open Era, including 11 Australian Opens between 1960 and 1973 and a complete Grand Slam in 1970.
"It’s not a secret that I have my sights on 25," Williams told Vogue in early 2018.
But already, Serena is the only player to have won 10 Grand Slam events in two different decades. Including her doubles and mixed doubles titles, she has won 39 major titles.
Serena played her first match as a pro on Oct. 28, 1995, at an indoor tournament in Quebec City, Canada, where she was trounced by 18-year-old American Annie Miller, 6-1, 6-1.
"I didn’t play like I meant to play," Williams said, "I played kind of like an amateur." Of course, she was only 14 years old and needed a wild-card entry to circumvent age requirements.
In 1997, after a short string of losses, she had her first big success at the Ameritech Cup Chicago, recording her first wins over Top 10 players (No. 7 Mary Pierce and No. 4 Monica Seles) before losing in the semifinal to No. 5 Lindsay Davenport. But Serena cracked the top 100 in the rankings — and was here to stay.
First-Class Sister Act
1998 marked the first time the Williams sisters faced off as professionals. At the Australian Open, Serena beat the sixth seed, Irina Spirlea, in the first round before losing to big sister Venus, 7-6, 6-1, in the second.
Brilliant careers have seen both sisters ranked No. 1 in the world, but Serena holds an 18-12 head-to-head edge.
She won her first pro singles title by beating Amelie Mauresmo in the 1999 Open Gaz de France in Paris. That same day, Venus won the IGA Superthrift Classic in Memphis, Tenn., making them the first sisters to win pro tourneys in the same week.
Venus won their first three meetings before Serena beat her in the final of the 1999 Grand Slam Cup.
They are the only women, let alone sisters, to play each other in four straight Grand Slam finals, starting with the 2002 French Open. Serena won all four of those titles.
Their most recent match came at the 2018 U.S. Open, where Serena dominated Venus, 6-1, 6-2.
Of course, the Williams sisters also are natural doubles partners. They’ve won 23 doubles titles together, including a perfect 14-0 record in Grand Slam finals.
She Loves New York
Serena had a tough road to her first Grand Slam title at the 1999 U.S. Open in Queens. Seeded seventh, she had to go through three straight former Open titleholders.
First was the fourth seed, Monica Seles, in the quarterfinals. Williams dropped the first set, 4-6, before storming back to win 6-3 and 6-2. She took down the defending Open champ, second seed Lindsay Davenport, in a dramatic three-set semifinal, 6-4, 1-6, 6-4. Then she had to battle world No. 1 Martina Hingis, winning 6-3, 7-6, to become the first African-American woman to win a Grand Slam title during the Open Era.
She has since won five more U.S. Open titles — in 2002, 2008, and three straight in 2012, 2013, and 2014.
While she has yet to win all four Grand Slam events in the same calendar year, Serena Williams has twice held all four titles at once. After she didn’t play the 2002 Australian Open, she captured four consecutive Grand Slam tournaments starting with the French Open in 2002 and ending at the Australian Open in 2003.
She again completed the “Serena Slam,” starting with the U.S. Open in 2014 and ending with the Wimbledon title in 2015.
It took a shocking 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 upset victory by unseeded Italian Roberta Vinci in the 2015 U.S. Open semifinal to keep Serena from completing the calendar-year Grand Slam.
Olympic Golden Girls
At the London Olympic Games in 2012, Serena Williams beat Maria Sharapova to claim her only individual gold medal and became the third woman ever to win gold in singles and doubles at the same games, winning the doubles title with her sister Venus.
The sister duo also took home gold in 2008 in Beijing and in 2000 at Sydney, where Venus became the second player to win gold in singles and doubles at the same Olympic games.
Early Tennis Lessons
Serena Williams’ 2018 return to the U.S. Open brought a touching new ad from Nike that features tape of a 9-year-old Serena getting instructions on her serve from her father, Richard Williams.
“This is you at the U.S. Open. This is you. This service motion,” he says, as the video cuts to action shots of her at the U.S. Open through the years. “Very good. Keep that perfect service motion you have … make sure you’re controlling the ball on every shot … be tough, like you want to win. Just like at the U.S. Open.”
One of the strengths of Serena’s game is her consistent big serve.
She has one of the fastest women’s serves on record, behind only Sabine Lisicki, who hit 210.8 km/hr (131 mph) at the 2014 Stanford Classic, and her sister, Venus, who hit 207.6 km/hr (129 mph) at the 2007 U.S. Open.
Serena’s peak speed was 207 km/hr (129 mph), a mark she reached at the 2013 U.S. Open.
On the men’s side, John Isner’s 253 km/hr (157 mph), at the 2016 Davis Cup, is recognized as the fastest serve.
In 2009, ESPN The Magazine’s first “Body Issue” was still in the planning stages, and staffers were feeling heavy pressure to get big-name athletes to participate.
One editor tells about meeting Serena on the red carpet at the ESPYs, explaining the idea for the issue and that they would want her to “get naked.” He said, “Serena paused, and when she paused, her chief marketing person shook her head and said, ‘Not a chance.’ But Serena paused, and she asked me … ‘Well, if I did, would you put me on the cover?’ ”
After the editor explained he couldn’t make cover guarantees, but that she would be a strong candidate, “She paused again. And she said, ‘OK, I’ll do it,’ and she walked away. And her marketing manager turned back to me and mouthed, ‘No way.’ But she used something between ‘no’ and ‘way.’ ”
Ten years later, Serena’s stunning ESPN cover still sets the bar. She actually had posed in the buff before, for Jane magazine in 2007, saying then that “locker-room girls don’t have much shame.”
Serena’s success has led to investments in other sports.
In 2009, Serena and Venus bought a small stake in the Miami Dolphins football team, becoming the first African-American women to own a piece of an NFL team.
In the offseason, Venus and Serena live in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., roughly an hour from what is now called Hard Rock Stadium, where the Dolphins play their home games.
Not just a winner on the court, Serena’s stunning talent brought plenty of A-list attention from would-be suitors as well.
Through the years, she was linked to pro athletes LaVar Arrington, Keyshawn Johnson and Amar’e Stoudemire, as well as celebrities like director Brett Ratner and rapper Common (she even appears in his “I Want You” music video), before she started dating Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian.
Ohanian proposed in December 2016, and their daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., was born in September 2017 by emergency C-section. Williams suffered a pulmonary embolism after the birth of baby Alexis and was bedridden for six weeks before the couple married in a Disney-themed wedding that November.
Maternity Break Point
When you’re the best tennis player in the world, even taking maternity leave can prove controversial.
Williams was ranked No. 1 when she stopped playing in early 2017 and was the top-ranked women’s player as late as May of that year. But the rankings are based on tournament results, and as she brought little Alexis into the world, she fell to No. 22, and her inactivity plummeted her to No. 491 in March 2018.
Her ranking affected her seeding — and as she started to play her way back into shape she was unseeded at Indian Wells, where she won two matches before falling to her sister in the round of 32. Serena then lost her first match at the Miami Open to Naomi Osaka.
The debate over maternity leave and its effect on a female athlete’s ranking raged.
Despite Serena’s 23 major singles titles, she also was unseeded at the 2018 French Open. Serena won three matches before falling to Maria Sharapova in the round of 16.
Despite her low ranking, she was seeded 25th at Wimbledon, where she made the final before losing to Angelique Kerber.
That result at the All England Club pulled her ranking all the way up to No. 28, and she was seeded 17th at the 2018 U.S Open, where she made the finals before losing an emotional match to Osaka, who captured her first Grand Slam final.
What a Return
Williams had dealt with being unseeded before.
She finished 2005 ranked No. 11 and lost in the third round of the 2006 Australian Open.
She then missed six months of tennis during the 2006 season, writing in her autobiography that she saw a therapist daily to battle depression, and her ranking dropped to No. 139.
She was granted a wild-card entry at the U.S. Open, where she lost to then-No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo in the fourth round.
Serena was unseeded again at the 2007 Australian Open, where a Nike rep reportedly told her the company was considering dropping her. Serena responded with the grit and grace of a champion, romping through the field and losing just three games to Maria Sharapova in a dominant final, claiming her first title since winning the Australian Open two years earlier.
'I'd Rather Lose'
The 2018 U.S. Open ended with a dramatic tournament-altering game penalty against Williams. Naomi Osaka dominated the first set, breaking Williams twice to win, 6-2. Early in the second set, chair umpire Carlos Ramos issued a warning against Williams for coaching from the stands.
Williams immediately challenged Ramos, telling him, "I don't cheat to win. I'd rather lose." Williams was up a service break, but Osaka broke back to get back on serve at 2-3.
Williams then smashed her racket to the ground, and Ramos issued a point penalty for racket abuse. Osaka, starting up 15-0, served out the game at love to tie the set at 3-3.
After breaking Williams again with a brilliant passing shot to her backhand side, Osaka was up 4-3.
As the players switched sides, Williams went off on Ramos. "How dare you insinuate that I was cheating? You stole a point from me," she said. "You're a thief, too."
At that point, Ramos issued a verbal abuse warning and awarded a game penalty to Osaka, giving her a 5-3 lead.
Williams called for the referee and, in tears, complained that, "There's been a lot of men out here that have said a lot of things ... 'cause I'm a woman you're gonna take that away from me?"
Serena won the ensuing game on her serve, but Osaka held to take the championship.
Williams met Osaka at the net with a gracious hug, but then turned to Ramos and pointedly said, "You owe me an apology."
At the trophy ceremony, the crowd booed until Serena put her arm around a tearful Osaka. "She played well and this is her first Grand Slam ... let's make this the best moment we can. Let's not boo anymore ... Congratulations, Naomi."
After Osaka was presented the trophy, she quietly said, "I know that everyone was cheering for her and I'm sorry it had to end like this ... I just want to say thank you for watching the match. It was always my dream to play Serena in the U.S. Open finals. I was really grateful to be able to play with you. Thank you."
Never shy, Serena has long been a trendsetter on the court. Some of her highlight outfits include a black Puma short-set catsuit at the 2002 U.S. Open, a denim Nike skirt and button-up tank top at the 2004 U.S. Open Kids’ Day followed by an all-black biker-inspired look during the tournament, a hot pink blazer-inspired number in 2014 and a white tank top and pink-and-white striped skirt with matching pink armbands two years later.
At the 2018 U.S. Open, she rocked an off-the-shoulder lilac top with a matching fluffy tutu-style skirt.
But no outfit riled like the black Nike full-length catsuit she wore to play in the 2018 French Open. The president of the French Tennis Federation, Bernard Giudicelli, later said they would ban similar outfits from future French Opens, to “respect the game and the place.”
Williams said she wore the outfit to represent “all the moms out there that had a tough pregnancy” — and to help protect her against blood clots. Serena sells her own clothing line at serenawilliams.com.
Even legends have to retire at some point. But rest assured, whenever Serena Williams decides to hang up her racquets, she will remain the queen of the court.
Long Live the Queen
Serena Williams is still going strong in the twilight of her career (she turns 37 on Sept. 26). But even legends have to retire at some point.
When Serena decides to hang up her racquets, she will be remembered for much more than a powerful tennis game.
The kid from Compton has changed the way we think about women athletes and revolutionized the sports world.