Updated: Sep 12
✦ There are a handful of people who are instantly recognisable by just their first name. Legends of the silver screen, music and sport whose reputation, fame, achievements and influence are so significant that their full names aren’t required: Elvis, Tiger, Ringo, Kobe, Diana, Denzel, LeBron, ahem, Britney! Serena is another.
You say the name Serena and everyone knows who you are talking about: Serena Williams, the all-conquering Queen of the tennis court, she who made such an indelible mark on not only her sport but popular culture. A consummate winner. A legend.
Earlier this month Serena Jameka Williams announced her retirement from the game that made her a worldwide household name and role model for millions. The 40-year-old American played the final match of her singles career at the US Open on September 2nd when she lost to 46th-ranked Aussie Ajla Tomljanovic. It brought the curtain down on a glittering 27-year professional career which, in addition to her 23 Grand Slams, saw her win an overall haul of 73 titles, in addition to 14 doubles titles with sister Venus and four Olympic gold medals. She spent a total of 319 weeks as the world number one, including a joint-record 186 consecutive weeks.
Her announcement marked the end of an era and saw her hang up her racquet being acclaimed one of the finest players, male or female, to ever grace a tennis court. She may be leaving the game one Grand Slam title short of Margaret Court’s record but she does so widely acknowledged as the finest female player of all time.
Serena was born on September 26, 1981, in Saginaw, Michigan to Oracene Price and Richard Williams but the family moved to the infamously tough suburb of Compton in Los Angeles when she was very young. She first picked up a tennis racquet at the age of three and was coached by her parents until they moved to Florida when Serena was nine years old so she could enrol in the acclaimed Rick Macci academy, which had produced such talents as Andy Roddick, Jennifer Capriati and Maria Sharapova.
In 1995, at the age of 14, Serena’s father pulled her out of the academy so he could train his youngest daughter himself. Remarkably she made her professional debut not long after as a wild card entry at the Bell Challenge in Quebec. She lost in qualifying but it was the first taste of the professional game that the young lady would go on to so dominate in years to come.
Her older sister Venus was a major influence in those formative years, Serena admits. “I followed her around the world and watched her,” she said in a Vogue article just prior to her retirement. “When she lost, I understood why, and I made sure I wouldn’t lose the same way... I learned the lessons from Venus’s losses instead of the hard way, from my own. It was as if I were playing her matches, too. I’m a good mimic... [and] if I hadn’t been in Venus’s shadow, I would never be who I am.”
Serena’s reputation grew in subsequent years on the hallowed courts of Wimbledon, Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York and the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne before she won her first Grand Slam at the US Open in 1999 as a 17-year-old, beating heavyweights such as Kim Clijsters, Conchita Martinez, Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis en route. Serena had arrived and the rest was history.
“She’s the greatest female tennis player ever to hold a racquet, and the greatest female athlete that we’ve seen,” Macci said after Serena announced her retirement at the start of the month.
“You’re never going to see a player like Serena Williams again,” added the 67-year-old. “She checks every box - size, speed, quickness, strength, agility. She had muscles on muscles even at aged nine.
“Technically she hits the ball very clean. We moulded the best serve in the history of tennis. But at the end of the day it’s that Compton street fight. Serena was like a pit bull. When she got a hold of you she wouldn’t let go. And that’s an amazing quality. She has no weaknesses.”
Time to evolve
“I have never liked the word retirement. It doesn’t feel like a modern word to me. Maybe the best word to describe what I’m up to is evolution... I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me.”
This is what Serena told Vogue immediately prior to her retirement. In the article she was very candid on the struggles she faced when deciding to call time on her career on the court. “It’s the hardest thing that I could ever imagine,” she said. “I hate it. I hate that I have to be at this crossroads. I keep saying to myself, I wish it could be easy for me, but it’s not. I’m torn: I don’t want it to be over, but at the same time I’m ready for what’s next.”
It is a challenge faced by many when they transition into retirement, but something felt especially keenly by professional athletes who have spent the majority of their lives intertwined in their sport, conditioned by discipline and competition, consumed by its very nature and often not knowing much else. “My whole life, up to now, has been tennis,” Serena commented in the same Vogue piece.