Serena Williams: Numbers do not matter - she is the GOAT, perhaps of all sports
Here is a good pub quiz question for you: what is Annie Miller’s greatest claim to fame? The follow up question is, of course, “who is Annie Miller?”
The answer is that Miler was the first person to play Serena Williams in a professional tournament. It was 1995 and Serena was just 14. And Miller, who was 18 and ranked No 149, sploshed her 6-1, 6-1 in the first round of qualifying in Quebec City.
Three years later, Miller reached her highest career ranking of No 40; by that time, Serena was the world No 19. Two years later, Miller retired and Serena was already a grand slam champion. The Serena era was well underway.
For 27 years, Serena has dominated women’s tennis. Even when she was that 14-year-old kid on a back court in Canada, the spotlight was on her and not her opponent. Her big sister, Venus, had already been making headlines but their father, Richard, had warned all who cared to listen that if Venus was a champion in the making, it was little Serena we had to watch out for. She was the prize fighter. She was the one who would not be beaten.
Now, as she begins the countdown to her final match, it does not seem possible that she will no longer be a part of the tennis world. Although she has played just three matches in 14 months (and lost two of them), she has never been far away from the news agenda. Would she play again? Is she retiring? Serena was still the story.
Serena has been running away from the “r” word for years. Writing in Vogue this month, she still would not actually use the word retirement; she was, instead, “evolving away from tennis”. And the US Open would, in all probability, be her last tournament. It is not that she is a fantasist, it is just that she cannot bear to let go of her career.
She wrote that she has barely discussed retirement with her husband; it is “like a taboo subject”. She did not talk of it to her parents, either. But she wants to have another child and with her 41st birthday galloping towards her, “something has to give”. She won the 2017 Australian Open while two months pregnant but she is not going to try that again. This time around, family comes first.
She leaves with 23 grand slam singles titles, one shy of Margaret Court’s record. But for once, the numbers do not matter. The Australian’s tally of 24 major trophies were amassed in an age when few of the top players made the trip to Melbourne for the Australian Open where Court won 11 of her titles. She was, undoubtedly, one of the greats of her era but those results cannot hold a candle to Serena’s achievements.
Beginning her career in time of Steffi Graf and Monica Seles (not to mention her sister Venus), she moved on to face Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati and Martina Hingis. From there she took on Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin and Maria Sharapova. Then it was the turn of Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber and Barty to try and beat her. And until these past two months, since her reappearance at Wimbledon, no one would bet against her whenever she stepped on court.
She has won when she has been at her very peak and she has won when she has been clearly undercooked. In 2007, she got to the Australian Open looking heavy and out of shape. No matter; she simply refused to lose. Round after round she dared anyone, from the qualifier, Anne Kremer, to the then world No.1, Sharapova, to beat her. And nobody dared.
Only when the opportunity to win that 24th grand slam title presented itself did she look vulnerable. She has always suffered from nerves – every player does – but as she grew older and she knew the chances to equal Court’s record were getting fewer and fewer, they shackled her. That, in turn, led to frustration and anger which, when it bubbled over, was far scarier than her fiercest serve.
The “Serena Temper” has always been hard to control. When she loses it, she loses it big time, most famously when she threatened a line judge who had dared to call her for a foot fault in the 2009 US Open semi-final. “I swear to God, I’ll f*****g take the ball and shove it down your f*****g throat" she yelled at the woman who immediately told the umpire. Serena was docked a point and the match went to Clijsters.
But it is that fury, that anger, that has made Serena into a champion like no other. As she wrote her retirement essay in Vogue, she was still raging. Not at the dying of the light but at the unfairness of being a female athlete. She wants another child so she has to choose between tennis and motherhood. If she were a male athlete, she could leave the pregnancy to her partner while she got on with business of being a champion.
Serena has polarised opinion and that is partly due to racism and sexism and partly due to her spectacular outbursts. That belligerent, brash and cocky side of her character has won her those 23 grand slam titles but it has also stood up for women’s rights, mother’s rights and African American’s rights. She has a platform and she is not afraid to use it.
After 27 years, the sport Serena Williams leaves behind is very different to the one she first played: faster, stronger, more athletic. Much of that is down to her. She is not just the GOAT of women’s tennis, she is arguably the greatest athlete, male or female, of all time. There will certainly never be another one like her.