Serena Williams May Be Retiring, But Her Legacy Lives On
By Adam Zagoria
If this was indeed the end for Serena Williams, she may wonder what could have been.
The GOAT of women’s tennis had a golden opportunity to advance to the second week of the U.S. Open and postpone her retirement again, but just couldn’t close the door on Ajla Tomjanovic, a 29-year-old Croatian-Australian who will go down as the last opponent in Serena’s storied career after prevailing 7-5, 6-7(4), 6-1 in a dramatic 3-hour match full of twists and turns played before a raucous pro-Serena crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
A fighter to the end, Serena fought off five match points, but on the sixth she hit a forehand into the net before walking to the net and shaking hands with her opponent. She waved to the crowd and put her hand over her heart.
“Oh my god, thank you so much, you guys were amazing today,” she told the crowd. “I tried but Ajla just played a little bit better. Thank you, daddy, I know you’re watching. Thanks, mom.
“It all started with my parents and they deserve everything, so I’m really grateful for them,” she added, fighting back tears. “These are happy tears, I guess, I don’t know. I wouldn’t be Serena if there wasn’t Venus, so thank you Venus. She’s the only reason Serena ever existed.”
She added: “It’s been a fun ride. It’s been the most incredible journey I’ve ever been on in my life.”
Asked by ESPN’s Mary Joe Fernandez if she might reconsider retiring, she said, “I don’t think so, but you never know.”
With Russell Wilson and her sister Venus in her player box rooting her on, Williams served for the first set at 5-3 before losing her serve twice and dropping four straight games. And she led 4-0 in the second before Tomljanovic roared back by pushing Serena around the court with precision power.
Serena ultimately summoned the will to win in a taut tiebreak, but wasn’t able to manage much of a fight for much of the early part of the third set — the final one of her career.
The serve — Serena’s biggest weapon — let her down. She was broken eight times after dropping serve seven times in her first two matches. She fell to 61-2 in the first three rounds at the Open, losing for just the second time.
“Well, I’m feeling really sorry just because I love Serena just as much as you guys do,” Tomljanovic said, “and what she’s done for me, for the sport of tennis is incredible, and I never thought I’d have a chance to play her in her last match when I was remember watching her as a kid in all those finals so this is a surreal moment for me.”
She added: “I just thought she would beat me, so the pressure wasn’t on me. She’s Serena. Even to the last point, I thought that she’s in a really good position when she’s down 5-1. That’s just who she is. She’s the greatest of all time, period.”
Serena will now move to next phase of her life, growing her family, working on her business ventures and enjoying life off the court. It’s hard to know how much she will be around the game of tennis going forward.
“You can’t really feel sorry for her,” 18-time Grand Slam champion Chrissie Evert said. “I think she’s going on to bigger and better things.”
Unless she comes back to play another major, Serena will finish her career with 23 Grand Slam titles, one shy of Margaret Court’s all-time mark of 24. Serena had four chances to tie Court since having her daughter Olympia but lost in four major finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2018 and ‘19.
It is worth noting that Steffi Graff won 22 majors and retired at 30 — a decade earlier than Serena.
Martina Navratilova and Evert each won 18 majors, while Navratilova captured more 31 in doubles and 10 in mixed doubles for a total of 59. Navratilova won 167 singles and 177 doubles titles (344), combining for the most ever. John McEnroe won 156 combined titles in his career.
Serena is fifth on the all-time women’s titles list with 73 in singles. She owns 98 career titles including doubles and mixed doubles. That includes a gold medal in singles and three in doubles.
During her career, Williams has been the No. 1 player at the end of the year five times and has totaled 319 weeks at the top spot. Only two players have spent more time atop the WTA singles players list: Graf (377) and Navratilova (332).
Still, she is widely considered the GOAT because of her domination across more than 20 decades. She won matches in her teens, 20s, 30s and 40s.
“What Serena has done is leaps and bounds ahead of what anyone has accomplished in this sport,” ESPN’s James Blake said on air this week.
Evert is already on record calling Serena the GOAT.
“To me, her legacy is already sealed,” Evert said during the 2021 telecast of Williams’ truncated match at Wimbledon. “If she never wins another Grand Slam, if she never matches Margaret Court, [it] doesn’t matter. She’s still the greatest.”
Williams started her tennis life from the humblest of circumstances.
Her early life was recently documented in the biopic King Richard, which followed the life of Richard Williams, 80, who quit his job to coach his daughters in tennis on public hard courts in Compton, Calif. despite many obstacles.
He famously predicted his daughters would both be No. 1 in the world, and that his younger daughter would be better than his older one.
In the film, Richard Williams famously tells tennis coach Rick Macci that in Serena and Venus, he had the next two Michael Jordans.
“I went up to Richard and I said let me tell you something because there’s more about Venus,” Macci said. “I said, ‘You got the next female Michael Jordan on your hand,’ and he put his arm around me and he goes, ‘Oh no brother man, I got the next two.’
Now, Serena has a net worth of $260 million and has more than a dozen corporate partners. Her $94 million in career prize money is twice as much as any other female athlete has made.
Serena may be riding off into retirement but her legacy will live on in the impact she and her sister Venus have had on younger generations of women of color, including four-time major champion Naomi Osaka, former U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, French Open finalist Coco Gauff and countless others.
“I think that her legacy is really wide, to the point where you can’t even describe it in words,” Osaka said of Serena.
“She changed the sport so much, she’s introduced people that have never heard of tennis into the sport and I think I’m a product of what she’s done. I wouldn’t be here without Serena, Venus, her whole family. I’m very thankful to her.”
Before the Williams’ sisters, few black women played at the highest levels of women’s tennis, although Althea Gibson was a pioneer in the 1950s.
Now younger players grow up having seen what Serena and Venus accomplished.
Gauff, who moved into the fourth round with a straight-sets win over Madison Keys Friday, said “growing up I never thought that I was different because the No. 1 player in the world was somebody who looked like me.”
Gauff said she learned how to handle herself with poise and confidence by watching Serena.
“I feel like Serena taught me that,” she said. “She never settled for less. I can’t remember a moment in her career or life that she settled for less. I think that’s something I took from. As a person, I’m growing into being an adult and learning how to handle things now with the media and tennis and everything, I’m trying to learn to not settle for less.”
Gauff revealed that the first money she ever made for herself, came from playing Serena in a commercial.
“They needed a stunt double to play a young version of her from just the face down,” she said. “I think it was for a Delta commercial. I don’t think they ever used it, but that was, like, my first check I ever got as a kid. She doesn’t know this, but the first money I ever made for myself was because of her doing a commercial.”
Asked to reflect on those kinds of comments from younger players, Serena said:
“I don’t think I’ve even taken a moment to realize any impact. I understand it, but I don’t really meditate or think about it.
“I’ll have plenty of time soon to do all that. I just am so grateful that they see that. I can see it, too, but I don’t overthink about it. I’m still here for the time being, just enjoying it.
“I feel grateful that I can have that impact. I never thought I would have that impact, ever. I was just a girl trying to play tennis in a time where I could develop this impact and be a voice. It was just so authentic ’cause I do what I do, and I just do it authentically me. I think people could really relate to that.”
Image: AP Photo/Frank Franklin II