A quarter of a century ago, Serena Williams entered tennis majestically, regally and without restraint. Now, after many years of sad reflection, we have a premonition of how it will all end. Like, like, something like. May be. Barring the unlikely — a caveat that must always be kept in mind with Serena — she will end her unrivaled career in New York at the 2022 US Open.
For any athlete, knowing when to say when is a painful exercise. Especially in individual sports, where there is no contract to win back, there is no management that will make the choice for you. And for individual athletes who travel the circuit and don’t have a home field or court, the question of where to say when is also raised. In this case, Serena, four weeks after turning 41, decided to pick up her string instrument and play her last grace notes in the hall that epitomizes her operatic career.
In a way, it couldn’t be more appropriate. The US Open is not only Serena’s home grand slam but also her debut volley, the site of the first of 23 majors she will win. She has won the New York title six times in total and has won more matches at the stadium named after Billie Jean King (106 this week) than at any other tournament.
However, the US Open was also the site of what we might condescendingly call some of Serena’s toughest moments. There were miserable defeats. There were times when she was offended. There were times when she was wrong. Serena’s attitude towards the most important tournament in her country is the face of Janus, the change of mood. Her status update might read: It’s difficult.
It is noteworthy that two decades have passed since Serena made her debut at the US Open. While tennis courts are, of course, necessarily flat, her experience on the US Open courts was undulating, full of ups and downs. A quick look at memory lane:
Background: A year earlier, Serena’s older sister, Venus, had reached the final of the US Open. This run was accompanied by fearless tennis, but perhaps best remembered was the unfortunate incident with the Romanian Irina Spirlea, which slightly foreshadowed that the Williams sisters would face unsightly resistance in some circles. In her debut match in New York, 16-year-old Serena won her first two matches, showing off her precocious strength. And who did she meet in the third round? Spirlea. Serena lost in three sets, but remarked (at 110 mph) that she was already a formidable player.
Venus Williams was considered by many to be the favorite to win the US Open and have the Williams House consecrated. Correct prediction, wrong sister. At the last major tennis tournament of the 20th century, 17-year-old Serena won the title. And the emphasis on won, when she beat a number of top players in a row (and in three sets) – Kim Clijsters, Conchita Martinez, Monica Seles and Lindsey Davenport, all of whom were inducted into the Hall of Fame. In the final, Serena beat first place Martina Hingis to earn $750,000 and a dynasty began.
The complexity of the Williams family tennis takeover was such that the US Open moved the women’s title to an overnight session, maximizing television audiences. The sisters confirmed this decision, both reached the final. Leading 3-1 in the Grand Slams, Venus defeated Serena in straight sets, not so much a competitive match as a primetime admission that the picture is of two sisters raised in the same house in Compton batting titles like a playful tennis rally. — has become the most remarkable story in sports.
Increasingly comfortable with the idea that the birth order can be subverted and the little sister can beat the big sister without demanding a price for the relationship, Serena got the better of Venus this time around in another family affair. It was her third major in a row, and surprisingly, she and her sister each had four Grand Slam titles.
Playing what could have passed for her opponent (Jennifer Capriati) in the quarter-finals, Serena landed a series of shots that hit the line or inside the line but were called out. Whether it was incompetence or something more nefarious (as many assumed), those missed calls loomed large as Capriati won the match 2-6, 6-4, 6-4. These mistakes have become the catalyst for the tennis player’s universal desire for instant replay. While it was cold consolation that this happened at Serena’s expense, it can be said that she played a pioneering role in bringing tennis to technological speed.
Returning from the Olympics, Serena was in top form, beating Venus in the quarterfinals and then Serbia’s Jelena Jankovic in the final to win her third US Open title.
A decade after her breakthrough, having already stunned the crowds by donning cowboy boots to the court for the first matches, Serena faced the Clijsters in the semi-finals for a chance to defend the title. The best player back from maternity leave, Clijsters played as well as ever and captivated the audience, inspired by her backstory.
At the end of a tense match, Serena was called out with a foot error. She turned to the linesman who was calling, and microphones outside the court picked up her threats to the judge. “I swear to God I’ll take the ball and shove it down your fucking throat.” When the line judge reported this threat to the chair judge, Serena denied saying anything inappropriate. (“I didn’t say I’d kill you! Are you serious?”) She said, and so it was. The outburst resulted in penalty points and in turn lost the match. Williams was later fined $175,000 and given a two-year suspended sentence.
Returning to the US Open for the first time since her disgraceful elimination in 2009, Serena quickly made it to the final. There she met Australian Sam Stosur. In hindsight, Serena would most likely want this match back. She delivered a surprisingly empty speech, one interspersed with another contradiction. Serena called for “handicap” after she yelled out during the point draw. Because you are out of control – completely out of control. You’re a hater and unattractive on the inside.” Serena lost 6–2, 6–3.
Having just won a Wimbledon title and an Olympic gold medal, playing perhaps the highest tennis of her career – which is of course saying something – Serena has won seven matches in one of two ways: either she was unplayably good and mistreated her rivals, or demonstrated her steely will and refused to leave the court with anyone other than the winner. This was also the case in the final when she showed defiance to match her shots on the ball and beat Victoria Azarenka 6–2, 2–6, 7–5.
Another US Open, another classic performance by Serena, another comedy loss to Azarenka in the final, 7–5, 6–7, 6–1.
For the only time in her career, Serena has won three Grand Slams, beating her close friend Caroline Wozniacki in the final for the third (and likely last) time. Her prize money and award for the best hard court season this year? Over $3.95 million, almost five times her first title, is a testament to the sport’s growth, not least driven by the Williams sisters’ appeal and influence.
In perhaps the most important year of her career, Serena came to New York, winning the first three rounds of the Calendar Slam in an attempt to become the first woman since Steffi Graf in 1988 to accomplish the greatest feat in tennis. In the quarter-finals, she beat Venus in what was less of a tennis match and more of a sold-out celebration for the two transformative, groundbreaking sisters. Serena won in three sets. (It was hard to imagine how Venus would interfere with her sister in history.) This scene seemed set; plans for the celebration were in full swing… but Serena succumbed to the weight of the occasion against Italy’s Roberta Vinci, who finished 43rd. Despite the home crowd wanting her to win, Serena simply couldn’t use her usual wand work or mental powers and lost 6–2, 4–6, 4–6.
At her first US Open as a mother, Serena supplemented her status as a crowd favorite with that of a sentimental favorite. In the final, she faced Naomi Osaka, who today is one of a large cohort of players who have cited Serena as their tennis inspiration. However, Serena showed more nerves. After a series of infractions, including breaking the coach’s rules and breaking the racket, Serena received a point from chair umpire Carlos Ramos and the tennis match became an international affair. To some, it unmistakably reeked of racism and sexism. For others, Serena was simply being punished for her wrongdoings. Despite all the polarization and hot results, neither side covered themselves in glory that day except for Osaka, who won their first Major 6-2, 6-4.
Serena won six games and, two sets short of her long-cherished goal of equaling Margaret Court’s record of 24 majors, faced a young opponent who had never been in that position again in the final. In a match without drama but relatively without tension, Serena, then only weeks short of her 38th birthday, was simply outmaneuvered by Bianca Andreescu of Canada batting half her age, 6–3, 7–5.
And here we come to 2022
As much as Serena Williams has been underestimated at her peril — a theme that has recurred throughout her career — it’s hard to imagine her contending for the title. She has won exactly one match in the last year. A series of injuries and outdoor activities did not allow her to fully devote herself to tennis. However, this would rightfully be an absolute love for Serena. Especially if she could light a few matches for the memory banks and give insight into past magic, that fusion of power, precision, strategy and determination.
Serena Williams is an unparalleled athlete. She is also, perhaps, an unparalleled difficult athlete. In that sense, it’s fitting that she ends her glorious career – game, set, match – in a place filled with so many personal ghosts and so much personal success.
More US Open coverage: