The Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd’s marked disappointment when Serena Williams hit her final forehand into the net did not last long.
A rapturous cheer quickly rang out in the stadium for a woman who extended Ajla Tomljanovic by a fourth hour in their US Open third round match, and whose brilliance lasted more than a quarter of a century.
She and her sister Venus changed the game and the approach to life for many – whether they dreamed of a professional tennis career or simply a better and fairer future for themselves and their families.
Be yourself, that was the message. Women, especially those of color, don’t need to hide their emotions or a desperate drive to succeed. Many noses were disarticulated in the process, but corrective surgery was long overdue.
Muhammad Ali and perhaps Billie Jean King aside, has any athlete had a greater impact on society than Serena Williams? And it may just be getting started.
His accomplishments are unparalleled. Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles has always been a false target, as the phenomenally successful Australian won 13 of those titles when professionals were banned from taking part. The goal was incredibly motivating, however, and helped a 30-plus-year-old Williams win more than half of the Grand Slams she appeared in between Wimbledon 2012 and the Australian Open 2017.
No one else has been able to continue collecting Grand Slam singles titles over an 18-year span. Twice, 12 years apart, Williams has won all four in a row. The first ‘Serena Slam’ was completed at the 2003 Australian Open and won more than four consecutive finals against Venus. The sister, who in Serena’s words was “taller, prettier, faster, and more athletic.” The sister, who had inspired the glowing newspaper articles and was originally their father Richard’s primary focus. The sister, whose bed she sometimes had to share when she was a child but from whom she learned so much and acquired so much dynamism.
Williams has won a total of 23 Grand Slam singles titles, although she only won two in five years in her mid-twenties. In what have often been the peak years of a player’s career, Williams was trying to come to terms with the death of her sister Yetunde in a drive-by shooting in Compton in September 2003.
In her 2009 autobiography, Queen of the Court, she talks about falling into depression. “It was a painful sadness, a total weariness, a sudden disinterest in the world around me – tennis, above all,” she wrote.
She did not return to the top of the world rankings until five years after her sister’s death.
The arrival of Serena and Venus accelerated the spread of power in women’s football. Monica Seles and Lindsay Davenport had gotten the ball rolling, but this type of aggressive hitting had never been seen before.
Former world number six Chanda Rubin recalls a match she played with Serena in Los Angeles in 2002.
“She hit a punch and it was the hardest forehand I’ve seen go past me,” she said.
“I didn’t even get a chance to react and move, and I had played Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati.
“It was just pure power. And zero to 60. That visual never left me, even though I won that match.”
Williams also has arguably the best serve ever. It offers power, placement, rhythm and precision, and is harder to read than War and Peace.
As a woman and a woman of color, Williams’ accomplishments and attitude had a dizzying impact on so many others.
“Before Serena came along, there wasn’t really a sports icon that looked like me,” Coco Gauff said in New York last week.
“Growing up, I never thought I was different because the number one player in the world was someone who looked like me.
“Sometimes being a woman, a black woman in the world, you settle for less. She never settled for less.”
Don’t forget the Grand Slam title won in Melbourne when she was eight weeks pregnant, and the four Grand Slam finals she then reached as a mother in her late thirties. Let’s not forget the postnatal depression, and the two pulmonary embolisms that put her life in danger.
Williams knows all too well that black women are far more likely to die in childbirth and addressed the issue in a 2018 BBC interview.
“Doctors don’t listen to us, just to be completely honest,” she told me.
“There are some things that we’re genetically predisposed to, but some people aren’t. So to know that coming in, or that some doctors don’t care about us as much, is heartbreaking.”
Williams spoke out with increasing confidence on sensitive issues as her career progressed. She chose 2015 to return to Indian Wells, where 14 years earlier she experienced an “undercurrent of racism” ahead of the singles final against Kim Clijsters.
She cited former South African President Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, as having a significant impact on her decision to return.
“I can’t wait to come out and let the world know that no matter what you’ve been through – you can just come out and be strong and say I’m always going to be the best person I can be,” he said. she said in California in March.
Of course, Serena Williams is no modern-day saint. Arthur Ashe Stadium has witnessed her six US Open titles, but also venomous behavior towards officials, for which she has shown little contrition.
But I think she’s the most remarkable athlete of the last 40 years.
The pain she feels at having to leave the stage will be shared by many around the world.