Given 25 years have passed under the bridge and the enormous amount that’s happened along the way, it’s easy to forget now how radically original Richard Williams’ vision for his tennis-playing daughters was when he first uttered it, especially when it came to Serena.
She was born only 15 months after her sister, Venus, and she was in the arena that October 1994 week at the Oakland Coliseum -- 28 years before her final singles match Friday at the US Open -- when her 14-year-old big sister beat former NCAA champ Shaun Stafford, a six-year tour veteran, in her pro debut. She was there a couple days later when Venus extended Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, then the No.2 player in the world, to three sets in the second round.
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“Let me start by making a statement: Fourteen is much too early to turn pro,” Sanchez Vicario said jokingly to reporters after escaping with the nerve-shredding win.
Venus arrived at that tournament having not played an official match in two years, not even a backwater tune-up for her big debutante night. Richard had pulled her from the junior circuit at age 12 after she won all 63 of her matches that year. Venus already stood 6-foot-1. And still -- still! -- Richard told anyone who would listen, Wait for Serena. Serena is really The One.
It’s natural to reminisce about that moment now that Serena announced her retirement at the age of 40. She ends her 25-year career as one of, if not the greatest player in tennis history, male or female. Even Roger Federer, for so long the leading men’s contender for that honor, yielded the GOAT title to Serena in a 2018 interview. So has everyone from Billie Jean King to Chris Evert, John McEnroe to Andre Agassi to Venus herself.
With 23 Grand Slam singles titles to her credit, including twice holding all four titles at the same time, Serena accomplished one of the toughest things to achieve in sports: She was an athlete who arrived with over-the-top hype and still exceeded expectations.
She is a prophecy fulfilled.
Though she and Venus were often seen as a pair, Serena had a transformative, sometimes tumultuous, ultimately transcendent career in far different ways than Venus. Serena is part Althea Gibson, but part Beyoncé, too -- a fashionista, entertainer, business maven, sister, wife and mother, all while remaining a jock to the core. Her list of records and accomplishments is long and breathtakingly varied. And whatever she’s done, she’s brought so much passion to it people often can’t seem to pry their eyes away.
Serena is arguably the best example of a modern athlete who was not only peerless in her sport, but smartly leveraged the modern array of social media and entertainment platforms to expand her brand, enhance her global reach and catapult her influence and business portfolio to stratospheric heights.
You can argue only LeBron James rivals her. She has 15.2 million Instagram followers, nearly 11 million on Twitter, and among her friends are Sheryl Sandberg, Oprah Winfrey, Nike founder Phil Knight, everyone from rappers to royalty like Megan Markle and Prince Harry, the former Duchess and Duke of Sussex.
But even LeBron doesn’t take his fans so intimately into his professional life and personal journey as Serena has. She is fiercely smart and witty and temperamental, unabashedly outspoken and strong and sensual, hyper-competitive enough to have had some regrettable tangles with a US Open lineswoman and chair umpire that brought her censure, and yet vulnerable enough to admit some of the losses and personal attack on her over the years hurt like hell. And people respond to that. All of that.
Serena’s incinerating will to win was one of the most riveting things about her. She was remorseless, even when playing Venus. The power both sisters brought to the game was transfixing, never more so than when they were booming shots at each other. But only Serena’s serve has been called the best weapon in tennis history, and she hurled her whole body into her groundstrokes, often punctuating her swings with yelps and growls.
It was hard not to notice the more tense the match became, the louder Serena tended to become. It was as if a window into her soul was being flung open and you could literally see and hear and feel how desperately she wanted to win. In French, the term is un cri de cœur: “A cry from the heart.”
Even when she drifted off the tour for long stretches, Serena never lost that drive once back. And there was always something affecting about that, given everything else she had going in her life. Her legacy and success were long ago assured. But Williams has always refused to be boxed in by old tropes or convention.
She has re-cast thoughts about what’s “appropriate” or “feminine” or “impossible.” She’s flicked away attacks on her musclebound build over the years and answered probing questions -- like, what it’s like to be an African American icon who married a white businessman, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian -- with grace.
“It just goes to show you that love truly has no color,” Serena has said.
Years ago, Serena was asked whether a woman from Turkey could ever be a tennis champion. She answered, "Well, there is a girl that is a champion from Compton, so anything is possible."
It feels like she’s been on stage forever, but it’s not an illusion. Serena won her first Grand Slam singles title ahead of schedule, at the age of 17, and her final one came at 35. Remarkably, 10 of her 23 Grand Slam titles came after her 30th birthday -- the last of them at the 2017 Australian Open, where she defeated Venus in the final. She didn’t lose a set during her seven-match tear though she was secretly eight weeks pregnant with her daughter, Olympia.
Even for Serena, working as feverishly as she did to return to tennis once Olympia arrived was an epic undertaking. Back in 2011, Serena had nearly died from a pulmonary embolism and she was smart enough to know she was in mortal danger again in 2017 after she had an emergency C-section necessitated because Olympia’s blood pressure in utero was dropping too low. As Serena later recounted to Vogue magazine, she felt short of breath the next day, willed herself out of her hospital bed and into the hallway to urgently call out for a nurse.
“I need a CT scan with contrast and a heparin [blood thinner] drip,” Williams correctly told the medics, who did an ultrasound at first instead. “A Doppler?” she challenged them. She was right. They were initially wrong. Before long, Williams was in surgery to deal with an abdominal hematoma, then surgery again to implant a filter to protect her from more blood clots in her lungs. Once she got home, she was in bed for six weeks.
By the time she arrived at the 2018 French Open, Serena had played only four singles matches since giving birth nine months earlier, marrying Ohanian and filming a bracingly intimate five-part HBO documentary about the previous year.
When Serena took center court, she skipped wearing a traditional tennis skirt and came out rocking a black full-length Lycra body suit. “Here comes Mom,” commentator Mary Carillo quipped on the Tennis Channel.
When Serena was told during her on-court interview after winning the match that her outfit was trending on Twitter, she smiled and said it was a nod to “All the moms out here that had a tough pregnancy and have to come back and try to be fierce in the middle of everything.
“Can’t beat a catsuit, right?” she said jokingly.
It was perfect. Self-assured. Self-deprecating. Fun.
The French Open eventually banned catsuits, then relented when there was an outraged hue and cry. Serena moved on to other things. Williams is constantly asked to volunteer what she’s enjoyed most about Olympia so far, and she always sounds absolutely smitten.
“Just holding her, and the way my heart skips a beat. I never thought of that," she said. "I’m that mom that takes my child everywhere with her. She inspires every step I take and I hope I inspire her, too, because while I try to teach her how to be a positive influence, she in fact teaches me how to be a stronger person every day. It’s the best part about being a mom. … She’s my mini-me.”
Serena’s tormented chase of Margaret Court’s Grand Slam titles record took on epic proportions as it dragged on, much like Ahab chasing his great whale. Few people think Serena needed to catch Court to be considered best ever. Like so many great athletes, it’s not just the numbers that elevate her. It’s the anecdotal memories, too, the amplitude of her talent, the twists in her backstory, the mountains she scaled.
Serena knows the tale of how she and Venus were taught tennis by their parents at first when they lived in a violent part of Compton, California, training on courts where broken glass and the pop-pop-pop of gunshots were common, sounds like a fable. But it’s always added another level of magic to their credulity-straining careers, and shows no dreams are too big when you work for what you want.