Serena Williams progressed from learning to play tennis on public courts in a notorious American gangland neighbourhood to becoming a generational superstar and possibly the greatest player in history.
Now, the 40-year-old legend is on her way out after almost certainly playing her final match, a three-set loss to Ajla Tomljanovic at the US Open on Friday.
“I’m ready to be a mom and explore a different version of myself,” she said, looking forward to spending time with Olympia.
Serena and her seven-time Grand Slam winner sister Venus were executive producers on the film “King Richard,” which told the Hollywood fairytale of them being taught tennis by their father Richard Williams while growing up on the tough streets of Compton, California.
“I’m still that girl with a racquet and a dream, and I’m just playing for that,” Williams said after winning the US Open in 2013.
She ended up living the dream, winning seven Australian Opens, three French Opens, seven Wimbledon titles, and six US Opens to fall just one title short of Margaret Court’s all-time record for Slam singles titles.
Serena won her first Grand Slam title at the age of 17 at the 1999 US Open, and she won her 23rd and most recent major title at the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant with Olympia.
She gave birth to her daughter in September 2017 and spent six weeks bedridden due to a pulmonary embolism, but she battled back to compete in Fed Cup doubles alongside Venus five months later.
Williams, whose husband is Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, has twice won all four major titles in a row to complete a “Serena Slam.” She did it in 2002-2003, beginning with the French Open in 2002, and again in 2014-15, beginning with the US Open in 2014.
She had a chance to complete a calendar-year Grand Slam in 2015, but was defeated in the US Open semi-finals by Italy’s Roberta Vinci.
“I never want to focus on the numbers,” Williams explained. “I started playing tennis not because I wanted to be the best, but because I had a racquet and a dream.” People now say I could be (the greatest), but I’m just not there yet.
Williams brought style and power to her game, with her fashion designs occasionally overshadowing her dazzling on-court efforts.
Her only title as a mother came in January 2020, when she won the Auckland Open, the most recent of her 73 career WTA titles.
Williams had four chances to equal Court’s all-time record but lost in the Wimbledon and US Open finals in 2018 and 2019.
Obstacles and setbacks
She, too, encountered difficulties. Yetunde Price, Serena’s half-sister, was killed by a gang member in their hometown of Compton in 2003 when she was 31 years old. Serena’s personal assistant, she had been.
Williams needed two surgeries and spent 20 weeks in a walking cast after cutting her foot in a German restaurant days after winning Wimbledon in 2010. She blamed the situation for causing blood clots in her lungs in 2011, which threatened her life. She was out for nearly a year after missing three major events.
“(Doctors) told me I had blood clots in both lungs. Many people die because you don’t recognise it,” Williams said in 2011.
“I couldn’t breathe, and I honestly assumed I was out of shape.” A few more days and it would have been disastrous. It could have been the end of my career.
“Being at the pinnacle of your game, having something like that happen at random was difficult, and it really made me appreciate things.”
Williams attributed her success to her father’s efforts and remained loyal to him even after her parents divorced.
“I wouldn’t have won a single title without him and his support,” Williams said. “He’s an excellent coach.” He’s just so creative.
“He created my game as well as my sister’s game.” He laid a solid foundation for us. It was solid and not weak, so we could always improve our game.”
Other children would taunt Richard Williams’ daughters while they practised.
“In order to be successful, you must prepare for the unexpected,” he told CNN in 2015. “Criticism can bring out the best in you.”
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