An appreciation of Serena Williams: the unseen power of an inspirational woman

The impact of this winner of 23 Majors and Olympic gold stretches far beyond tennis

Serena Williams
Serena Williams (Photo: China Images / Imagine China Limited / depositphotos.com)

Anyone who has followed tennis for decades, and who has reported on it for almost as long, will most likely have said pretty much all there is to say about Serena Williams.

This admirer has lost count of the matches watched and articles written about this towering presence on a tennis court and her impact on sport around the world.

Not for her or elder sister Venus—winner of seven singles Majors, too—the convention of coming through the ranks on the junior circuit but an emergence, almost fully formed, onto an unsuspecting tennis world.

Serena played her first main-draw match in 1997, at barely turned 16, and the following year, she played her first full set of Majors, winning at least one match at all of them.

Before turning 18, she had won her first Major title, and where more appropriate to do so than at the US Open. And during the course of more than 24 years since that first match—in Moscow—and the last in yesterday’s New York finale, Serena has totted up more Major title than any man or woman in the Open era, 23 of them. She has won five WTA Finals titles, 23 WTA1000s, plus Olympic gold and 21 further ‘regular’ titles.

On the doubles court alone, she has won 16 Major titles, three Olympic golds, two 1000s—and four ‘regular’ doubles titles.

She held the No1 ranking for 319 weeks, with a record-equalling 186-week stretch from 2013 to 2016.

And yet she seemed many times along the way to simply defy the odds. Take 2010, when she won Wimbledon without dropping a set, soon after stepped on broken glass and, months later, suffered a pulmonary embolism.

Yet two years after the accident, she returned to win her 14th Major—her fifth Wimbledon title—and complete the Golden Slam by winning Olympic gold at London 2012. Not satisfied with that, she won Olympic gold in doubles with her sister, went on to win her fourth US Open, and her third WTA Championships. It garnered her the WTA Player of the Year Award for the fourth time.

Take 2015, when she achieved the Serena Slam, four Majors in a row, for the second time. The first was in 2003, so a span of 12 years for the now almost 34-year-old.

And take 2017, when she returned to play her first matches since the US Open semis in Auckland, and made a title run to that 23rd Major title at the Australian Open. She did not drop a set, nor even face a tie-break, yet she later revealed that she had at the time been two months pregnant.

Four times since her maternity leave, 2018 to 2019, she came within one match-win of a 24th Major. That was, and remains, an invisible line in the sand set by Margaret Court in the pre- and post-Open era. Court spanned an era when many players did not make the costly journey Down Under to play the Australian Open, where the home player was near invincible from 1960 to 1973—11 titles. And so most give an unequivocal nod to Serena in a ‘greatest ever’ poll.

For a start, there is the longevity of Williams: for a quarter of a century she and her sister have plied their trade at the very highest level. In comparison, Court played at Majors for around 15 years.

Then there is the sheer physical and emotional presence of Serena, who took athleticism in women’s sport to new audiences and new heights. She flew the flag for diversity like few others, and competed with a visceral passion that, more than once, took her too far in dealing with court officials, and she was rightly reprimanded.

Yet one only has to read the tributes from fellow players, from commentators, from the media, from fans, to appreciate the impact this woman has had.

So let this tribute move from the general to the particular, and to the impact Serena has had on a young woman she has never known, and likely will never meet.

She is one of two daughters who, like their mother many years before, spent weekends hitting balls, or riding or trekking the countryside. The tennis bug waxed and waned, ebbed and flowed, but by their early 20s, both would come to enjoy special trips to famous venues: Wimbledon and New York.

One of them was immediately drawn to Rafael Nadal, and continues to find inspiration for herself in his resilience, and fight-against-the-odds heart.

The other was captivated by Serena, and in between hospital visits during our 2009 New York stay, we saw Roger Federer on his way to the final. And we also watched Serena, in shocking pink, in what proved to be the start of something big for my daughter.

She has since said, simply:

“For me, she is a hero, and not because I am a great or regular tennis player, not because I admire her backhand or fitness (although I do admire both). My admiration doesn’t come from her game, but more her attitude towards the game and towards herself.

“I love her refusal to fit into the mould of a ‘proper’ woman, mum, or tennis player. I love her unapologetic feminism both on and off the court. Her heart and passion for taking a stand for others shine through, whether she is posting honest beauty tutorials on Instagram or standing up to an unfair, sexist decision on the court.

“Women in sport don’t have it easy, there have been battles for equality for decades, and that fight continues, not only in sport but across the board. Serena (to me) is an inspiration and a powerful role model.”

But time is a cruel mistress when it comes to athletes in particular, yet Serena’s acceptance of the toll inflicted by the passing years has been accepted with admirable grace. After more than a year away from tennis, enforced by yet another injury at Wimbledon last summer, she said simply:

“I can’t do this forever, and sometimes you want to try and be your best and enjoy the moment and do the best you can.”

Closing in on her 41st birthday, she has been doing her best for decades—and has been inspiring fans from afar for almost as long.

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