Serena Williams has played her final professional match — probably. It was surely the emotion of the moment, but it should be noted that in her post-match interview Friday night she did leave the door open to playing again — something that has considerable precedent in tennis. But if this really was the end, her riveting loss to Ajla Tomljanovic was a fitting public farewell, with an entire stadium (and an entire sporting public at home) saying an emotional goodbye to someone they’ve spent a large portion of their lives watching. The night was a valediction to Williams, but not just her — also her sister, her family, and really the entire last 25 years of tennis. Williams, a 23-time Grand Slam singles champion, was the greatest women’s player of her generation, possibly of all time. But even that sort of undersells how much she changed her sport. And how much it needed to be changed.
“Some people in tennis wish the entire Williams family would fall down a very deep well followed closely by a very snug lid,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly back in 1998. And he wasn’t alone. A whole bunch of the same people who were celebrating Serena last night desperately wanted her and her sister to go away when they first arrived. (This is not dissimilar to how universally beloved Muhammad Ali was at the end of his life despite being one of the most unpopular figures in the country for a large percentage of it.) The Williams sisters — and, specifically, their dad — were seen as a blight on tennis when they arrived in the late ‘90s, too brash, too unrefined and, mostly, too Black; their very presence was seen as an affront to the sport itself. This despite the sisters themselves being unfailingly polite and endearingly precocious, real teenagers — not forged in some tennis academy lab, so earnest and star-struck by the tennis stars they adored and were suddenly surrounded by that they self-published a tennis newsletter called Tennis Monthly Recap which featured articles written by Serena and Venus about the sport they were just about to dominate. While the powers that be were trying to run them out of the sport, the Williams sisters were interviewing tour players and writing about their nervousness. “I had extra batteries for the tape recorder and I was equipped with my pen and notepad, just like a journalist,” Serena wrote, at the age of 17.
The Williams sisters changed their sport nearly as much as they changed themselves over the years, particularly Serena, who went from an anxious little sister antsy about interviewing German tennis player Tommy Haas to not just an all-time tennis great, but a fashion icon, an entrepreneur, a public figure of unparalleled influence, and an avatar of power, grace, and fierce independence. (And there was controversy too: In 2009 there were people who, wrongly, wanted her banned from the U.S. Open for an emotional outburst at an umpire.) The way Serena was embraced in her final U.S. Open is nearly unprecedented in sports, where sad endings are the rule. A superstar as vaunted in defeat as in victory, millions of people collectively not wanting to say goodbye, an aging champion defying time while also succumbing to it in the most human, relatable way. All of Serena was on display Friday night: the competitiveness, the inner strength, the emotion, the mental fortitude. She was, to the very end, Serena.
But then again: This isn’t the end, not really. One of the strangest things about the career arc of an athlete is, in the context of sports, how young they are when we consider them old. Serena Williams is only 40, which is old for a tennis player but not old for anyone else. And just as Serena was an unstoppable force on the court, as we saw on Friday — and I suspect we will continue to see for years to come — she is and always will be an unstoppable force off it as well.
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