Serena Williams: Twenty five things to remember about the tennis star

Serena Williams, 23-time Grand Slam champion, bowed out of the 2022 US Open on Friday after her third-round loss to Australian Ajla Tomljanovic in what was probably the final match of her career.

Serena Williams thanks the fans after her loss to Ajla Tomlijanovic of Australia during the third round of the 2022 US Open at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Friday in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

Serena Williams thanks the fans after her loss to Ajla Tomlijanovic of Australia during the third round of the 2022 US Open at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Friday in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. | Photo Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Serena Williams, 23-time Grand Slam champion, bowed out of the 2022 US Open on Friday after her third-round loss to Australian Ajla Tomljanovic in what was probably the final match of her career.

Serena. Around the world for 25 years, you need only hear or read her first name to recognize this singular athlete. From the precocious teen queen to the record-smashing 30-something, Serena Williams dominated, transformed, and transcended tennis.

Less than a month short of her 41 st birthday, the kid who grew up in violent, gang-ridden Compton, California, (probably) hung up her racket losing in the third round of the US Open

Throughout her long and illustrious pro career, Serena was as polarizing as she was powerful. “Serena’s influence will be felt for decades to come,” predicted ESPN analyst Pam Shriver.

Here are 25 things I most remember—for better or for worse—about Serena.

1. The GOAT — Whatever your feelings are about Serena, she clearly earned the mythical “Greatest of All Time” accolade. She amassed an Open Era record 23 Grand Slam singles titles, one more than Steffi Graf, four more than 1920s-’30s superstar Helen Wills, and five more than Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. Moreover, Serena, like Graf, captured a gold medal at the Olympics, which reinstituted tennis as an official medal sport in 1988. She also racked up a near-perfect 14-1 Fed Cup record, won five WTA Finals, and had five No. 1 year-end rankings.

A disappointed Serena fell one Major short of tying Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24. She confided, “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want that record. I didn’t get there. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. I didn’t show up the way I should have or could have. But I showed up 23 times, and that’s fine. Actually it’s extraordinary.”

Indeed, it was even more extraordinary because her competition was much tougher than Court’s. To wit, Court won 11 of her Majors at the Australian Open from 1960 to 1973, when its fields were usually quite weak. In sharp contrast, Serena dominated the greatest era in women’s tennis history, 1999 to 2010, which featured current and future Hall of Famers Venus Williams, Monica Seles, Justine Henin, Maria Sharapova, Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, and Amelie Mauresmo.

2. Revolutionary Style — Serena’s unique combination of shot power and foot speed—along with Venus’—revolutionized the way tennis was played. Graf had come closest to that before with a strong serve, punishing forehand, and her blazing speed. Court, Billie Jean King, and Navratilova boasted superb serve-volley skills and Henin a highly athletic, all-court game. Monica Seles relentlessly blasted groundstrokes, but lacked a huge serve and dynamic movement.

But none of these superstars had Serena’s all-court intimidating power, particularly serve and overhead. “Her serve was the greatest shot in the history of women’s tennis,” said ESPN analyst Pam Shriver. “Serena has the best combination of serving power and placement of any player who ever lived,” said Evert. With a classic, rhythmical service motion, a Sampras-like identical toss that disguised the serve’s direction and spin, and tremendous racket head speed, Serena pulled out close games, sets, and matches by belting aces and service winners with stunning regularity.

3. On-court intensity — No woman in tennis history, whether a champion, challenger, or journeywoman, played with the fierce, primal intensity of Serena. Her menacing glare, as much as her rugged, muscular physique and explosive shots, intimidated opponents, especially young, impressionable players. “I’ve never seen anyone express their willpower as much as Serena Williams on the tennis court, ever,” said King, after Serena defeated Venus in the 2009 Wimbledon final.

On her demeanor, Evert, now an ESPN analyst, said, “[Serena showed] it was OK to be ferocious and fearless. Thirty years ago those qualities were considered obnoxious.” Indeed, fist-pumping and shouting after winning points, thanks to Serena, became almost de rigueur on the WTA Tour this century.

4. Pressure Player — Serena’s fiery competitiveness ignited her uncanny ability to play best when it mattered most—on big points and in big finals. During her long prime, she racked up a terrific 20-4 record in Grand Slam singles finals. A memorable quote early in her career helps in explaining why she handled the high-stakes pressure so confidently. “If you can keep playing tennis when somebody is shooting a gun down the street, that’s concentration. I didn’t grow up playing tennis at the country club.”

Her (Serena’s) serve was the greatest shot in the history of women’s tennis

—  ESPN analyst Pam Shriver

King, another charismatic champion and a winner of 39 Major titles in singles and doubles, provided a second reason Serena thrived on pressure. “To be a great performer, a great athlete, you’ve got to really enjoy the limelight, like [Michael] Jordan, or any of us, and that’s one of her biggest pluses.”

5. Doubles Perfection — “Her doubles doesn’t get talked about enough,” rightly said ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez. Serena finished a perfect 14-0 in Grand Slam doubles finals and 3-0 in Olympic finals, all with Venus. Both records will likely never be broken. Their domination at the Olympics was so complete that they dropped a total of only 12 games in the three finals.

FILE PHOTO: Women’s doubles gold medalists Venus (left) and Serena Williams (right) at the 2012 London Olympics.

FILE PHOTO: Women’s doubles gold medalists Venus (left) and Serena Williams (right) at the 2012 London Olympics.

With booming serves and aggressive serve returns, the Williams sisters also won another eight WTA Tour titles, while losing just one final. In 1998, Serena and Max Mirnyi captured mixed doubles titles at Wimbledon and the US Open.

6. Greatest Matches — At just 17, Serena more than lived up to the massive hype when she won her first Grand Slam title at the 1999 US Open. She did it with a bang, whipping five future Hall of Famers—Clijsters, Conchita Martinez, Seles, Lindsay Davenport, and Hingis. And, while eight weeks pregnant at age 35, she captured her last Major at the 2017 Australian Open by defeating her sister in the final. In between, this irresistible force trounced many elite opponents at the Majors and Olympics. Perhaps that’s why Serena treated us to fewer memorable matches than other superstars. However, her three most riveting triumphs featured dynamic comebacks.

In the 2012 US Open final, Victoria Azarenka, who had captured the 2011 and 2012 Australian Open, thoroughly tested Serena. Down 5-3 in the deciding set and two points from defeat when serving at 30-all, Serena escaped to pull out a 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 victory against the power-hitting Belarusian, who returned Serena’s awesome serve better than anyone.

“I honestly can’t believe I won,” Serena admitted during the trophy presentation. “I really was preparing my runner-up speech, because I thought she’s playing so great.”

Serena faced even more dangerous crisis in the 2005 Australian Open semifinals. She trailed Maria Sharapova throughout much of their heavy-hitting duel and somehow staved off three match points when the 6’2” Russian served for the match at 5-4 in the second set. Serena eventually prevailed in the 2-6, 7-5, 8-6 thriller.

In the enthralling 2009 Wimbledon semifinals, Serena escaped near-defeat again. Elena Dementieva, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist from Russia, had a match point at 5- 4 in the third set. This time Serena’s low volley winner ignited the turnaround for a 6-7, 7-5, 8-6 triumph.

7. Human Rights Advocate — In a 2016 Facebook post, Serena spoke out about the police killings of Blacks. “I remembered that horrible video of the woman in the car when a cop shot her boyfriend [Philando Castile]…. “I had to take a look at me,” she wrote. “What about my nephews? What if I have a son and what about my daughters?” She invoked Dr. Martin Luther King, who said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal,” adding “I won’t be silent.”

After the 2020 brutal murder of George Floyd, a Black American, by a White police officer, she condemned racism and violence. Serena supported the #EveryChildAlive campaign by advocating for affordable, quality health care for every mother and newborn. She’s also talked about the plague of domestic abuse.

In 2019, WTA founder Billie Jean King, who battled racism, homophobia, and sexism for decades, contended Serena should focus on tennis and stop fighting for equality. That prompted Serena’s memorable riposte, “The day I stop fighting for equality and for people that look like you and me will be the day I’m in my grave.”

8. Philanthropy — Serena is a generous benefactor to several educational, health, and entrepreneurial causes. The Serena Williams Foundation helps build schools and provides scholarships and grants to students around the world. During a 2008 African charity mission, Serena said, “This is the first of many schools I plan to open up in Kenya. It is amazing how education has uplifted the lives of many people and has empowered them to determine their own future. It is the best achievement that I have done in my life.”

She has served as a Goodwill Ambassador of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and has done extensive charity work with the organization since 2006. She has also established the “Yetunde Price Nursing Scholarship” in association with the California Community Foundation to honor the life and memory of her sister who was killed by an act of senseless violence.

In 2018, she promoted Breast Cancer Awareness Month on Instagram, releasing a rendition of “I Touch Myself” by The Divinyls to remind women to regularly perform self-examinations for breast cancer. Last December, Serena partnered with actor Michael B. Jordan to donate $1 million to one HBCU student winner of the Legacy Classic HBCU Startup Pitch Competition.

9. Sunshine Patriot — On the debit side, however, there was plenty to criticize, and Serena earned the dubious distinction of being the least patriotic American star in Fed Cup history. She seldom represented the US in the Fed Cup unless doing that made her eligible for the Olympic Games. She played only four Cup ties from 2000 to 2010, so it wasn’t surprising the US, which previously dominated the international competition, didn’t win the Fed Cup during that 11-year period.

“We should have been the Fed Cup dynasty,” lamented Tennis Channel analyst Mary Carillo. “It’s a pity Venus and Serena didn’t play much. We could have won it 10 times [if they did].”

When asked if she had any kind of responsibility to her country to play in the Fed Cup, Serena answered: “My only responsibility is to my two dogs.”

10. Poor Sportsmanship — Serena displayed the worst sportsmanship by far of any female champion in history. Trailing Kim Clijsters 6-4, 6-5, 15-30 in the 2009 US Open semifinals, she was called for a foot fault on her second serve. Serena exploded, and brandishing her racket, she angrily cursed and threatened a Japanese lineswoman: “If I could, I would take this f---ing ball and shove it down your f---ing throat and kill you.” Since Serena had already been given a warning for smashing her racket after losing the first set, the point penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct dramatically ended the match. Compounding this outrageous misconduct, she showed a lack of contrition, retorting, “An apology? From me? Well, how many people yell at linespeople?”

With her two-year probation for her 2009 tirades expiring at the US Open, Serena unleashed another tirade in her 6-2, 6-3 final loss to heavy underdog Samantha Stosur. It came when chair umpire chair Eva Asderaki rightly penalized her for violating the hindrance rule for yelling, “Come on!” before Stosur hit the ball. “You have it out for me,” raged Serena. “Aren’t you the one that screwed me over the last time? Yeah, you are. I truly despise you…. You’re totally out of control. You’re a hater and you’re unattractive inside. What a loser.” Regrettably, Serena repeated that “hindrance” infraction in various degrees during the rest of her career.

The 2018 US Open final pitted Serena against 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, a big-hitting Japanese-Haitian. “Ever since I was a little kid. I dreamed of playing Serena in a Grand Slam final,” Osaka recalled.

FILE PHOTO: Serena Williams with chair umpire Carlos Ramos while playing Naomi Osaka during the 2018 US Open women’s singles final on September 8, 2018 in New York. Osaka, 20, triumphed 6-2, 6-4 in the match marred by Williams’ second set outburst, the American enraged by umpire Carlos Ramos’s warning for receiving coaching from her box. She tearfully accused him of being a “thief” and demanded an apology from the official.

FILE PHOTO: Serena Williams with chair umpire Carlos Ramos while playing Naomi Osaka during the 2018 US Open women’s singles final on September 8, 2018 in New York. Osaka, 20, triumphed 6-2, 6-4 in the match marred by Williams’ second set outburst, the American enraged by umpire Carlos Ramos’s warning for receiving coaching from her box. She tearfully accused him of being a “thief” and demanded an apology from the official.

The second-set psychodrama turned Osaka’s dream into something of a nightmare and sadly overshadowed her stunning 6-2, 6-4 upset. An imbroglio started when umpire Carlos Ramos gave Williams a code violation warning for receiving illegal coaching from her player’s box, which coach Patrick Mouratoglou later admitted. When Serena smashed her racket on the hard court, she was issued a second code violation for racket abuse and assessed a point penalty. Enraged and fuming, Serena harangued Ramos on a changeover, calling him “a liar” and “a thief.” This code violation for “verbal abuse” cost Serena a full game.

Serena was characteristically unapologetic about her transgressions, which resulted in $17,000 in fines. Instead, she accused Ramos of sexism, a clearly baseless charge. Once again, Serena disgraced herself and demeaned the sport.

11. Ungracious Loser — After many of her losses, Serena made snide and sarcastic remarks about her opponents, giving them little or no credit and claiming she was 20 percent or 40 percent of her normal self or coming up with other graceless excuses for losing.

Hampered by an ankle injury at the 2012 Australian Open, she was upset 6-2, 6-3 by tenacious Ekaterina Makarova. Afterward, she said, “I didn’t play well; I’m not physically 100 percent. So it’s just like I can’t be so angry at myself, even though I’m very unhappy. I know that I can play a hundred times better than I did this whole tournament.”

Two years later at Aussie Open, Serena attributed a painful back injury to her 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 loss to 14th-seeded Ana Ivanovic. “I can play 10 times better than I played today. I almost didn’t play today,” she groused.

As early as 2001, Navratilova chided both Serena and Venus: “They have made excuses and not given credit to their opponents. They’re afraid to show any kind of humility. Humility doesn’t mean you’re weak.” How true!

12. King Richard – The “King Richard” movie, an unabashed hagiography, told only part of his controversial story. Richard Williams deserves plenty of credit for teaching Serena and Venus the basics and instilling discipline at an early age, but Rick Macci, the renowned Florida teaching pro, merits at least as much for molding their games from age 10 to 14, their formative years.

Richard was a far cry from role model tennis fathers like Jimmy Evert, Karolj Seles, and Corey Gauff. In India’s Deccan Herald, Richard ranted, “The white man hated me all my life and I hate him,” calling Chris Evert and Tracy Austin a “little white no-good trasher.”

FILE PHOTO: Tennis stars Serena Williams (left) and Venus Williams (right) with their father Richard Williams (centre) during a practice session in Bangalore on March 2, 2008. They were here to participate in the WTA Bangalore  Open Tennis Championship.

FILE PHOTO: Tennis stars Serena Williams (left) and Venus Williams (right) with their father Richard Williams (centre) during a practice session in Bangalore on March 2, 2008. They were here to participate in the WTA Bangalore Open Tennis Championship.

Rejecting the notion that criticism of Richard Williams was motivated by racism, Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim, in 2008, wrote: “I have no sympathy for Richard Williams. Imagine if another tennis parent were an outrageous liar, bragged about giving his kids ‘ass whippings,’ made flagrantly racist and anti-Semitic remarks, held up bizarre and provocative signs on a grease board, stood accused by his wife of domestic violence [supported by police reports], and allegedly cut ties with children he had fathered from a previous relationship. Would we really be dismissing him as a harmless, kooky uncle? My take: If there’s a double standard with Richard, he’s the beneficiary, not the victim.”

13. Allegations of Racism — Serena, her father, and their acolytes regularly made false allegations of racism on the pro tour. In 2008, in India’s Deccan Herald, Richard claimed, “People are prejudiced in tennis. I don’t think Venus or Serena was ever accepted by tennis. They never will be.”

The 2001 Indian Wells incident was falsely portrayed by Serena and her father. First, Venus was clearly in the wrong for her last-minute (knee injury) semifinal default, disappointing paying fans, TV watchers, the tournament, the media, and sponsors. Second, spectators have the right to boo, even jeer, tennis players, whatever their skin color and gender. Third, eyewitnesses and ear-witnesses said there were no racist remarks made at Richard Williams and Venus.

In his 2010 book, Hardcourt Confidential: Tales from Twenty Years in the Pro Tennis Trenches, Patrick McEnroe, then head of the United States Tennis Association’s player development program, wrote, “[The Williams sisters] have been sucked into that shallow narrative that encourages them to think that they double-handedly conquered a world that was intrinsically hostile to them. The truth is that tennis was dying to have someone like the Williams sisters come along, and not entirely for selfish reasons.”

Some tennis cognoscenti, like Navratilova and Hingis, viewed Serena and Venus as culprits, not victims. In 2001, Navratilova offered a different opinion. “People have been treating them with kid gloves because they’re African-American. If there were white, they would have been told off and more.”

14. Dereliction of Duty — Serena and Venus failed to support the WTA Tour by averaging only 11 or 12 tournaments a year for most of their careers. In response to the Williams sisters’ prolonged boycott of Indian Wells, the WTA Tour instituted a policy designating four mandatory tournaments (outside the Grand Slam events) for the tour’s top players in 2009.

On her lack of commitment to the Tour in 2003, Serena boasted, “I’m an actress, I’m a model and an athlete. I put athlete third on my list.” Then, the reigning French, Wimbledon, and US champion portrayed a jailed track and field star in the Showtime series Street Time.

Chris Evert even wrote an open letter in 2006 to Serena in Tennis magazine, urging her to cut down on her extracurricular interests and do justice to her awesome tennis talent, though Evert reconsidered it in 2013. The rationale was that playing fewer tournaments during her prime years would lead to a longer career. That proved true, but it also likely prevented Serena from breaking Court’s record.

Furthermore, unlike Evert, King, Navratilova, Shriver, Clijsters and other dedicated, altruistic champions, Serena took no interest in promoting the WTA Tour by joining the Players Council. During her 25-year pro career, she never received the annual WTA Diamond Aces Award, which is given to the player who does the most to promote the game of tennis on and off the court, or the Peachy Kellmeyer Player Service Award.

15. Overweening Ego — Named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year five times and the Laureus Athlete of the Year seven times, Serena apparently concluded she was something far more grandiose.

Comparing herself with the immortal Steffi Graf, Serena said, “She’s a good athlete; I’m a great athlete.” (1999) Unencumbered by false modesty after winning her first Wimbledon, she said, “I’m really exciting. I smile a lot. I win a lot and I’m really sexy.” (2002) When asked if 21-year-old Serena would beat 31-year-old Serena, she quipped, “I wouldn’t want to play me at 21 or 31.” (2013) “No. I’m not the best female athlete, I’m the best athlete, period.” (2016) On her legacy, she said, “We literally took the globe and shook it, me and Venus.” (2022)

All too often Serena felt she was bigger than the sport that made her rich and famous. Two months ago, she unconscionably snubbed Wimbledon’s Centenary Celebration of its hallowed Centre Court that attracted retired champions from around the world. Not surprisingly, the pandering media at Cincinnati and Flushing Meadows didn’t question her about that.

16. Unique Physique — Although Serena confided she always wanted to have the long, slender, and “beautiful” legs of her sister, Venus, she gradually learned to love her body and ignore body shaming from critics. Built like a football linebacker, she boasted huge shoulders and thighs, muscular calves, and, above all, the biceps of a boxer. Engaging in repartee with rocket server Andy Roddick, she once bragged she had “stronger biceps.” Roddick, good-naturedly, agreed.

As a result, more of her competitors pumped iron and boxed to enhance their toughness. During this century, for the first time muscles were no longer considered unfeminine among female tennis players at every level.

17. Media Favorite — Serena was a dream player for the media. Photographers captured her every emotion—agony, ecstasy, rage, frustration—and her fist-pumping and screams sometimes resembled those of Jimmy Connors on steroids.

Sportswriters can also thank their lucky stars because Serena was a quotes machine. Like the equally polarizing John McEnroe, she always bared her soul during press conferences. Love her or loathe her, the most polarizing female player in history always let us know what she was thinking and feeling.

Here’s a quick sample:

“I don’t know who I’m playing in the next round, but I know her name will end in ’ova.”

“I wouldn’t be Serena if there wasn’t Venus. Thank you, Venus.” (2022)

“If someone is outplaying me and her outfit isn’t nice, I refuse to lose to her.” (2001)

“I haven’t been on a date in forever. I can be super picky, never satisfied. I’m willing to try anyone anywhere between 18 and 80, blond, purple, or green.” (2012)

“I don’t eat dinner with players…. I start liking people too much and it gets too hard to beat them. I feel sorry for them and then when I play them, I get depressed. (2013)

“I could lose 20 lb. and I’m still going to have these knockers and I’m going to have this ass, and that’s just the way it is.”

“I’m always overly passionate. I love being passionate. It’s what I’m best at.” (2020)

“Gosh, I would say someone who’s close to their Mom and someone who’s nice and that you can dance with and laugh with.” — When asked to describe her ideal man. (2008)

“Oh, my God, I would love to have kids. And I guess you should be married if you want to have kids, right? (2008)

“That Serena was just tough and mean on the court, but she was really funny and nice off court.” — When asked how she would like to be remembered when her tennis career is over. (2010)

“I just thought, my eyes, my innocent eyes.” — After a male streaker interrupted her doubles match at the 2009 Australian Open.

“My heroes have changed after having a child. My heroes are moms because women are superheroes. To have a baby and then have to go to work two or three weeks later or work a 9 to 5 … I’m fortunate to not have to do that.” (2020)

18. Biggest Rivalries — For much of her storied career, Serena enjoyed no rivalries that matched those of the contemporaneous men’s Big Three. Her most enduring rival, not surprisingly, was Venus, who won 12 times in 31 matches, including four times at Majors. Their rivalry was closest from 1998 to 2005 when Venus won eight of their first 13 encounters, including four at Grand Slam events. That parity prompted a few players, like Elena Dementieva, to speculate, even allege, that their father Richard conspired to have each sister win certain finals.

Of course, hyper-competitive Serena, not to mention upright Venus, would never have agreed to such preposterous and illegal match-fixing. In 2001, Serena debunked the nonsense, saying, “If it’s fixed, how come I’ve only won once?”

In 2003 and 2007, Justine Henin actually dominated Serena, taking five of seven matches. Although physically mismatched against Serena, 5’6 ¾”, 126-pound Henin held the edge in athleticism, especially with much-superior volleying and touch. Billie Jean King once called Henin “the best pound-for-pound athlete tennis ever had,” and the blonde Belgian was often likened to Roger Federer in terms of sheer talent.

Henin brilliantly showcased her all-court and all-surface skills in 2007 when she vanquished Serena in the quarterfinals successively at Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the US Open. Nonetheless, Serena edged Justine 8-6 in their head-to-head rivalry.

19. Sibling Love — Their deep love and friendship seemingly prevented Serena and Venus from playing their best tennis when they faced each other. Two quotes provide clues. On their complicated sibling relationship and rivalry, Venus, then 29, said, “I don’t necessarily want her to lose, but for sure I want me to win. Maybe that doesn’t make sense. But when I’m playing someone else, for sure I want them to lose. I don’t like to ever see her disappointed. But at the same time, I don’t want to see myself disappointed. You know, I need to get my titles, too. So, I’m still the big sister, but I’m still going to play great tennis.”

Serena, a ferocious competitor and 15 months younger, always took a hard-nosed, pragmatic approach. When she was just 16, she memorably said, “What’s love got to do with it? I don’t have time to come along slowly. We both want to be No. 1.”

Psychologists must have had a field day analyzing these quotes and perhaps concluded they played a role in Serena’s eventual domination.

20. Fearless Fashionista — From wearing a white mini-dress and braided hair with colorful beads at the 1998 US Open to a dress that featured a black tutu consisting of six layers (each representing her six US Open titles), along with glistening crystals at the 2022 US Open, Serena has been boldly style-conscious and even political.

What the fashion icon would wear next was always anyone’s guess. At the 2002 US Open, Serena donned a black Puma one-piece body suit, and two years later there, a sexy denim micro-mini. Her eye-catching, white and pink Nike ensemble wowed the 2016 US Open crowd.

Pop culture inspired her neon yellow, two-piece outfit at the 2016 Australian Open. “I just wanted to push the envelope again, just bring pop culture to tennis, kind of make it really fun,” Serena explained.

FILE PHOTO: Serena Williams serves during her third round match against Julia Georges of Germany during the 2018 French Open at Roland Garros on June 2, 2018 in Paris, France. Serena courted controversy, unintentionally, when she wore a full-length catsuit

FILE PHOTO: Serena Williams serves during her third round match against Julia Georges of Germany during the 2018 French Open at Roland Garros on June 2, 2018 in Paris, France. Serena courted controversy, unintentionally, when she wore a full-length catsuit

She courted controversy, unintentionally, when she wore a full-length catsuit at Roland Garros in 2018. Even though Serena, who had suffered from blood clots, wore it to keep her blood circulating, French Tennis Federation President Bernard Giudicelli banned it, telling  AP, “One must respect the game and the place.” Serena confided she also had another motive. “I feel like a warrior in it, a warrior princess,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to be a superhero, and it’s kind of my way of being a superhero.”

At the 2019 French Open, the fashionista extraordinaire unveiled her latest Nike outfit, a black-and-white striped crop top, tennis skirt, trapeze-back jacket that flew out like a cape in the wind, and maxi skirt, all emblazoned with the French words for “Mother, Champion, Queen, Goddess.”

“[Fashion], in the hands of Serena Williams, has become a political tool: an unabashed statement of female empowerment and independence not just for herself, but for all,” wrote Vanessa Friedman, in The Age newspaper in Australia.

21. Victory Celebrations — Except for low-key gestures when Serena defeated her sister, Serena’s exuberant post-title celebrations reflected her passion for competing, winning, and connecting with her fans. Ever unpredictable, Serena jumped repeatedly like she was on a pogo stick. She fell on her back. She performed a pirouette. She bowed gracefully. Talking to the crowd after her stunning second-round “upset” over No. 2 seed Anett Kontaveit at the 2022 US Open, she flexed her biceps.

Her most creative and controversial celebration came at the 2012 Olympics staged at Wimbledon. After grabbing the singles gold medal, she did a “Crip Walk.” This fancy-footwork dance originated with the notorious Los Angeles street gang and later caught on around the world. “It was just me,” Serena said later. “I love to dance.”

Wherever she ruled a tournament, Queen Serena reveled in becoming a drama queen one last time to please herself and the roaring crowd.

22. Business Tycoon — Like Maria Sharapova, highly marketable Serena has flourished as a businesswoman. Her plethora of endorsements includes heavyweights Nike, Wilson, Gatorade, Delta Air Lines, Aston Martin, Pepsi, Beats by Dre, JP Morgan Chase, Audemars Piguet, Bumble, Upper Deck, IBM, Intel, Gucci, Subway, and Aston Martin, where she is the Chief Sporting Officer. With a current estimated net worth of $260 million, according to Forbes, Serena ranks 90th among “America’s Self-Made Women” and 31st among “The World’s Highest-Paid Athletes.”

In 2009, she and Venus became the first African-American women to obtain ownership of an NFL franchise when they became limited partners in the Miami Dolphins. During off-days at 2021 the Australian Open, Serena took orders for her fashion line, S by Serena, which she described as her “second career.”

Her firm, Serena Ventures, which has raised an inaugural fund of $111 million, has investments in more than 60 startups. The fund focuses on diversity, and among her latest investments is Karat, which helps more Black software engineers get hired.

“At Serena Ventures we envision a world in which genius isn’t stifled by a lack of resources,” says her company website. “A future in which historically overlooked people and markets are empowered for a more inclusive economy.”

The section about SV’s “angel investments” is titled “WE PLAY TO WIN.” Sounds just like super-competitive Serena.

23. The Contradictions — “How wonderful that Serena Williams enjoys all the protection our Constitution affords to all religions, yet she will not participate in that most basic democratic process that is the bulwark upon which her religious freedom stands: the vote,” wrote Gary E. Osius, criticizing Serena Williams, whose Jehovah Witness faith forbids voting, for not voting, in a 2008 letter to The New York Times.

ESPN The Magazine’s 2009 Body Issue had a cover photo in which Serena appeared naked but with her knees covering her breasts and her legs strategically placed. A Florida reader in the “Personality Parade” section of Parade magazine took umbrage, “How does tennis star Serena Williams justify wearing such sexy clothes when she’s a Jehovah’s Witness?”

While Serena and Venus talked about ducking bullets when they practiced in crime-ridden, drug-infested Compton, their father Richard wanted them raised there “because so many sports champions came out of the ghetto, and it makes you strong.”

Indeed, while diehard fans and uninformed pundits rave about how Serena and Venus overcame such great adversity as kids, the truth is far different. They came from a middle-class family—Richard owned a security company—and played in the tennis hotbed of Los Angeles renowned for high-level tournaments and balmy, year-round weather.

24. Inspiration — Coco Gauff, the 18-year-old Black prodigy who reached the 2022 French Open final, recalled, “The reason I played is my dad saw Serena win and bought me a racquet.” Four-time Major champion Naomi Osaka, a Haitian-Japanese, said, “When I saw Serena, I wanted to start playing tennis.” Countless other Black pro and amateur players, including men, attribute their choosing tennis, rather than more popular team sports, to Serena. “She is definitely the reason I’m playing the game,” said Frances Tiafoe, ranked No. 26 on the ATP Tour. As Billie Jean King said, “If you can see it, you can be it.”

Equally important, charismatic Serena and her sister Venus attracted new fans—and not just Blacks and women—to tennis. In 2003, Serena said, “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t run into someone who says, ‘I never watched tennis until you guys came, and if you guys aren’t playing, I still don’t watch.’ It doesn’t necessarily have to be African American. I get that from everyone.”

One indicator of Serena’s worldwide popularity was that in 2011 she was the most Googled woman in sports with 125 million results.

25. The Legacy — All things considered, Serena stands atop the tennis pantheon of champions. She also deserves our gratitude for advocating equal rights for women and people of color, along with following the trailblazing examples of Althea Gibson—the first Black champion—Arthur Ashe, and Billie Jean King. Whether it was a political stand, a fashion statement, or a momentous match, Serena often occupied front-page and TV news. A high-powered sports celebrity in the tradition of Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, she captured the public’s imagination as much as the major titles she coveted.

Arlen Kantarian, the visionary chief executive of the United States Tennis Association from 2000 to 2006, expressed the legacy of Serena and Venus better than anyone. “The sport is best marketed as tough, athletic, and macho,” Kantarian said. “The Williams sisters have done as much as anyone to market the sport as macho. Tennis players are up there with basketball players as the finest athletes in the world. They’ve got agility, power, and mental toughness.”

The message on a shirt Serena recently wore exhorts, “Be the Game Changer.” In so many ways for so many years, this American icon epitomized that credo.

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