When Serena Williams stepped onto Arthur Ashe for the final tournament of her career, cheers from a sold-out crowd rumbled across the U.S. Open stadium as her daughter Olympia looked down from the stands. Olympia had white beads braided into her hair—a callback to her mom’s first U.S. Open, over two decades ago.
Those white beads have become a symbol of sea change and the women who wore them international icons. From the moment Serena and her older sister Venus entered the world of tennis, it was abundantly clear they were something extraordinary—in 1997, Serena became the lowest-ranked player (No. 304) to upset two top-10 opponents in one tournament, and Venus became the first unseeded player to reach the U.S. Open women’s final since 1958. The record-setting would only keep coming. With Serena’s career at its close, there is nothing she deserves more than celebration for both her accomplishments and what she means to people—and that recognition can only start back in Compton, California when three-year-old Serena first picked up a racket.
Serena and Venus’ father, Richard Williams, was the lead architect behind their meteoric rise. Spending hours with his daughters on Compton’s public courts, Richard used his own coaching philosophy, incorporating drills developed from watching hours of tennis while simultaneously preserving their education and a relatively normal childhood.
In 1991, the Williams’ family relocated to Palm Beach, Florida where Serena and Venus attended the Rick Macci Tennis Academy until their professional debuts. Venus began her career in 1994, paving the way for Serena to follow in 1995.
Serena has spoken extensively about the impact Venus had on her development. Throughout their childhood, Venus molded Serena’s character and playing style as her chief competitor; she instilled an underdog, “little sister” sentiment in Serena. She set a wonderful example for Serena, fighting for equal pay at Wimbledon and illustrating how to confront racist resentment from fans at matches. The bond between the Williams sisters extended on and off the court, and success struck for both. In her final on-court interview, Serena battled tears: “And I wouldn’t be Serena, if there wasn’t Venus. So thank you, Venus! She’s the only reason that Serena Williams ever existed.”
In 1999, Serena broke through at the U.S. Open with a stunning two-week performance, which produced her first Grand Slam singles title. Over her 27 years of dominance, Serena won an Open Era record of 23 Grand Slams, the last of which came at the 2017 Australian Open while eight weeks pregnant. Her list of accolades also includes 14 Grand Slam doubles titles (all of which partnered with Venus; together, they were undefeated in major finals), two mixed doubles Grand Slam championships, and four Olympic gold medals. Serena holds the career Grand Slam (one of only nine women to have won all four majors in her career) and has completed the “Serena Slam” twice (winning all four of the Grand Slams consecutively over two calendar years).
On a technical basis, Serena has revolutionized women’s tennis. Her fierce serve was one of history’s most dominant, beautiful shots and has inspired today’s female tennis players to develop 120-plus mile-per-hour serves. With Venus, she turned women’s tennis into a sport determined by power and athleticism. The sisters helped diversify the very composition of the sport, opening pathways into tennis for young Black girls—the Naomi Osakas, Sloane Stephenses, and Coco Gauffs of today. They proved not only that Black women could be represented in tennis, but also fought fiercely for their public respect and pay equity.
Gauff, the 18-year-old phenom who’s quite possibly the future of American tennis, wrote in an Instagram post, “Serena, THANK YOU. It is because of you that I believe in this dream.” Earlier in the tournament, Gauff said, “Growing up, I never thought that I was different because the No. 1 player in the world was somebody who looked like me.”
Serena’s impact goes beyond just Black women; she has inspired countless athletes to begin their careers and has earned respect from players across the sporting world through her competitive play and outspokenness.
“What you have done for the sport of tennis, what you’ve done for women, and what you’ve done for the category of sport, period, is unprecedented,” basketball superstar LeBron James said of Serena. “Win, lose, or draw, it didn’t matter, we all knew that you were the greatest.”
The commitment to women and people of color is evidenced by Serena’s plans for her “evolution,” a term she prefers to “retirement.” Her brand, Serena Ventures, founded in 2014, has invested in more than 60 startups created by members of those communities with the goal of business empowerment. Other financial endeavors include S by Serena, a sustainable fashion brand, and minority ownership stakes in the NFL’s Miami Dolphins and the NWSL’s Los Angeles-based Angel City FC. She also has a lifetime sponsorship from Nike and deals with Gatorade, among other brands. In addition, Serena will no-doubt continue to have a strong presence in popular culture; she recently made several appearances at New York Fashion Week and will be releasing a children’s book in late September. Simply put, Serena has shown no signs of slowing down.
Her tennis career, though, has come to an end. There was Serena, hair laden with tiny, twinkling diamonds, taking her final post-game twirl and beginning the process of “evolving away” from the game of tennis. From the first game of her career to its eventual end, she was a fighter; she saved an incredible five match points before eventually falling in a bruising, three-hour final match against Australian Ajla Tomljanović. Really, it was this tenacious match—this moment—that encapsulated all Serena has brought to the game, and all that she is.
Serena’s game was gritty, and it was graceful. Her play was powerful, and persistent, and, most of all, unapologetic. Whether it was 1995 or 2022, Serena gave this sport her all, and because of that commitment and sacrifice, she has firmly cemented herself as nothing short of an icon. Her career may have ended, but her legend will persist. She is Serena Williams, the girl from Compton who picked up a racket at three and, at 40, put it down as the greatest of all time.
Max Zhang contributed to the writing of this article.