The marked disappointment of the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd, when Serena Williams hit her final forehand into the net, did not linger for long.
A rousing acclamation soon rang around the stadium for a woman who extended Ajla Tomljanovic into a fourth hour in their US Open third-round match, and whose brilliance spanned more than a quarter of a century.
She and her sister Venus changed the game and the approach to life of many – whether they had been dreaming of a pro tennis career or simply a better, fairer future for themselves and their family.
Be yourself, was the message. Women, especially those of color, do not need to hide their emotions or a desperate will to succeed. Many noses were put out of joint in the process, but corrective surgery had been long overdue.
Muhammad Ali and perhaps Billie Jean King aside, has any athlete made a greater impact on society than Serena Williams? And she may be only just beginning.
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Her achievements are without parallel. Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles was always a false target, as the phenomenally successful Australian won 13 of those titles when professionals were banned from taking part. The target was, though, incredibly motivating and helped a 30-plus Williams win over half of the Slams she entered between Wimbledon in 2012 and the Australian Open of 2017.
No one else has been able to keep collecting Grand Slam singles titles over an 18-year period. Twice, 12 years apart, Williams won all four in a row. The first ‘Serena Slam’ was completed at the Australian Open of 2003 and secured over four consecutive finals against Venus. The sister, who is Serena’s words was “taller, prettier, quicker and more athletic”. The sister, who had inspired the glowing newspaper articles and was originally the main focus of their father Richard. The sister, whose bed she sometimes had to share as a child but from whom she learned so much and gained so much of her drive.
Williams won a total of 23 Grand Slam singles titles, despite only winning two in a five-year period in her mid-20s. During what has 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 slipping into depression. “It was an aching sadness, an all-over weariness, a sudden disinterest in the world around me – in tennis, above all,” she wrote.
She did not return to the top of the world rankings until five years after her sister’s death.