Serena Williams: a limitless legacy

Caroline Hendrix, Senior Writer

Serena Williams is the greatest tennis player of all time, and here’s why.

As Williams played her last match at the 2022 US Open earlier this month, I wanted to investigate what she did for the game, its players and its fans. This investigation starts in her earlier days and ends at present-day. 

Williams claims to have first touched a racquet before the age of three. Her tennis journey began so young and alongside her older sister Venus. Williams owes her early growth to Venus before her professional career had begun.

In her Vogue essay, she explained that she was not playing well enough to play in some of the tournaments that Venus was in but still traveled with her and used Venus’ mistakes on the court as learning experiences to improve her own game. She notes a unique experience of being able to learn from mistakes without making them herself in those early days.

This, coupled with the commitment that she has made to the game, has transformed it forever. The Washington Post describes two major ways in which Serena’s career has and will be transformative: through her talent and character. 

A lot of her greatness lies in the fact that Williams has unmatched talent on the court. Her six US Open singles titles and 23 grand slam titles, a record in the open era, speaks to that talent. The Washington Post explained that Williams and her sister Venus challenged the “serve-and-volley era of women’s tennis,” as their refined mechanics and technique allowed them to use serves as a way to win points rather than solely start them.

The New York Times talks additionally about their use of an open-stance backhand, a swing or drive volley, early opening of the backhand, and going after second serves that elevated their game to the top. The ability for Serena and Venus to hone in on these skills and use them to win is also what changed the standards for other players who then had to adapt in order to compete. 

Williams’ character on the court as someone who can use passion to their advantage created a game that captivated watchers. Tennis World USA deems Serena’s last match as the most watched in ESPN history with a whopping 4.8 million viewers.

As the New York Post puts it, “No one wanted to let her go.” T

hey are watching for the skill and the wins that back it, but they are also watching for Serena herself. In her Vogue essay, Serena explains that “thanks to opportunities afforded to [her], women athletes feel that they can be themselves on the court. They can play with aggression and pump their fists. They can be strong yet beautiful.”

Serena’s fans watch her matches for this energy along with the power that she owns and proves through her wins. I think that this trailblazing for other women into the game and into other sports is what makes her the greatest because the impact of her career is felt beyond her majors and her technique. A great player impacts other players, the game and even other games: Serena has done just that. 

What other professionals have said about her impact substantiates this point. A Washington Post article captures Chanda Rubin’s description of how Serena has transformed the way in which Black women value themselves in the sport and in contracts, explaining Serena as “owning her value” and “[setting] the market.”

Coco Gauff similarly has taken away from Serena’s career a desire to “not settle for less” as Serena pushed the boundaries of tennis and what it means to be a Black woman in the sport. Naomi Osaka categorizes herself as a “product” of how Serena’s work has brought so many people to the sport that had not previously been represented.

What other players owe to Serena speaks to the legacy that she has left throughout her career and to a portion of what that legacy will be following her retirement. 

Serena is the greatest tennis player of all time because her technique and drive has elevated the game and those who engage with it. So while Williams is “evolving” away from her tennis career as she puts it, the work that she has put into refining her skill and creating a space that welcomes women and people of color remains.

Her Vogue essay talks about a conflict between wanting to continue playing tennis and wanting to focus on other areas of her life, including her family and growing her company Serena Ventures. She talks about being ready for whatever comes next, and I could not agree more.

What Williams has done for tennis and the people engaging with the game is unmatched, and if her impact on the sport is any indication of what she can do for other industries and spaces, then I suggest we all keep a close watch on her next steps. 

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