AAs Serena Williams was two wins away from one of her sport’s ultimate achievements, everything seemed to fall apart. For 10 months between 2002 and 2003, she had established a level of dominance not seen since the greats of the previous century. On a hot January night in Melbourne, however, she was on the verge of a crushing defeat, edging out Kim Clijsters 1-5 in the third set of their 2003 Australian Open semi-final.
But Williams had won three Grand Slams in a row for a reason. It was a time when she seemed almost unbeatable in the biggest moments. The loss was a mistake away, but it cleared all unforced errors from his game as Clijsters cowered. Williams saved two match points, won six in a row, then held off her sister, Venus, in their fourth straight Grand Slam final to seal the ‘Serena Slam’.
It was a classic Serena Williams moment giving up until death, a mentality that defined her career and drove her success. “Until you shake their hand, they don’t think they’re going to lose,” laughs Mary Carillo, the former doubles champion turned host. “They really don’t believe it. And that, I think, is something that the other players in the dressing room really felt: ‘You can have a set and a break on me, but you really think you’re going to beat me?’
With constant displays of her physical and mental strength, Williams changed the face of the sport alongside her sister, setting the bar in the sky and forcing the world to try to keep up.
For much of the early years of Williams’ history, the younger sister was an afterthought. Venus had entered the storm first, validating the endless hype of her 14-year-old debut, nearly beating Arantxa Sánchez Vicario. A year later, Serena’s career began with a relative whimper, a 1-6, 1-6 dismantling in the first qualifying round of the Canadian Open. When Richard Williams warned that Serena would be even better, few listened.
While Venus was still drawing power from her size, Serena took time to fill her frame, which would be instrumental in her growth. Instead of Venus’ reach, she’s learned how to slide opponents off the field with sharp angles, cleverly build points of attack and, when all else fails, hustle to the finish. In 1999, aged 17, she really began to harness her power, which combined with her us to destructive consequences.
She ended a remarkable breakthrough year with a big winning streak at the 1999 US Open: Clijsters, Wimbledon champion Conchita Martínez, world No. 4 Monica Seles, No. 2 Lindsay Davenport, Martina Hingis, world No. 1. Four of the five matches were decided in brutal straight sets, but by the end of the week, Williams was Grand Slam champion. “Five Hall of Famers,” says Hall of Famer Pam Shriver. “You look at who she beat. It was amazing.
Domination did not immediately follow. It was Venus who started accumulating major titles first, winning four of six Grand Slam titles in 2000 and 2001. Then Serena simply surpassed her sister’s highest tier. In 2003, she was one of the greatest movers of all time and one of the most destructive ball-strikers. His serve was smooth, reliable and vicious. As she and Venus also won doubles titles, she had developed a complete game. “It was almost like they were playing a different sport,” Carillo says.
The impact of the Williams sisters is best reflected in the fleeting challenges of their rivals. The late 90s had been a transitional period in Steffi Graf’s final years, with a group of dynamic, brash and charismatic young talents initially led by Hingis, a genius on the court but whose tricky trickery was increasingly ineffective in their presence. Williams’ dominance, along with powerful shooting from Davenport and Jennifer Capriati, closed his window of opportunity. In 2002, when Venus and Serena made four consecutive Grand Slam finals, she was done.
“When the bar is set so high, in such a rush, it will be difficult to adapt,” Carillo said. “You play your whole young life playing one way and now suddenly there’s two players saying, ‘OK, you’re really good, I know you’ve been doing this your whole life but take one charge.’ “What are you supposed to do? Change your grips? Adopt a more open stance?”
Karolina Pliskova, 30, is one of the few top players of age to have seen the Williams sisters in her debut. She and her twin sister, Kristyna, saw in them the attacking style of play they wanted to execute. “Before them, tennis was completely different,” says Karolina.
While some fell during Williams’ first wave of dominance, others adapted. Clijsters was already a supreme athlete while Justine Henin emerged in 2003 with more muscle. Under the right circumstances, Henin found joy in dulling Serena’s power with her variety and countering with her own weapons. But while the Williams sisters have lasted more than 25 years, the challenge of keeping up has worn her down. In 2008, Henin and Clijsters announced their first retirements.
“There were so many rivalries she could have had,” Shriver says. “It wasn’t his fault. No one has stepped up the way she has stepped up time and time again. People say she didn’t have the Chris [Evert] and Martin [Navratilova] rivalry. You can only play who is there. Think of all the champions she’s seen, starting with Graf, Hingis, Clijsters, Henin, Capriati, Davenport.
The Williams sisters had entered the sport at a time when trickery and patience were the defining characteristics of most players, groundstrokes unrolled with elaborate, inefficient movements unable to handle such a pace. They didn’t invent the power play – Seles, Capriati, Davenport and Mary Pierce preceded them – but their athleticism and serve took it to places unimaginable. Their influence was reflected in those that followed, such as the emergence of Maria Sharapova, who studied them in her youth and emulated their attacking mindset, but without the athleticism or us to match.
As pivotal as it has been in women’s tennis history, Serena’s first high was short-lived in the context of her 27-year career. By the end of 2003, she had undergone knee surgery and then her world was rocked by the murder of her sister, Yetunde. His subsequent years would be marked by inactivity, depression and his plummeting ranking, a fall that paved the way for one of his many legendary comebacks by winning the 2007 Australian Open.
As her career lengthened and moved away from her athletic peak, Serena’s all-time excellent serve became an even more central part of her game. perfect,” says Carillo. “It was divine. His throw never fluctuated. It never changed, so you couldn’t read it well. His wide serve on the deuce court is, I think, my all-time favorite serve.
Shriver was one of the best waitresses of her time, and she thinks Serena’s serve transformed the whole match. “I think more people have realized in the women’s game that the serve has to be a weapon,” Shriver said. “I think that’s one of his legacies. I feel like serving in women’s tennis over the past 10 years has been more appreciated and worked on more.
Serena’s legacy wasn’t just defined by her game. At the US Open, a brief look at the number of black fans and people of color in attendance underscores how their success has affected who watches, participates and claims as his. “When you walk on the court now compared to 25 years ago, it looks totally different,” Shriver says. “The call to bring in people of color. I don’t think Arthur [Ashe] had that kind of impact. Obviously Althea [Gibson] doesn’t. They really changed who comes to watch tennis and who plays. It’s a great legacy here.
And also who plays it at the highest level. Before the Williams sisters, Evonne Goolagong and Zina Garrison were the only black women to reach the Grand Slam final in the Open era. In the past five years alone, Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens, Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff have all earned this accolade. Years after the end of this great farewell, others will follow.