As Serena Williams was two wins away from one of her sport’s ultimate triumphs, it looked like she was falling apart. For 10 months between 2002 and 2003, she had established a level of dominance never seen before by the ancestors of the previous century. On a hot January night in Melbourne, however, she was on the verge of a huge victory, trailing Kim Clijsters 1-5 in the third set of their 2003 Australian Open semi-final.
But Williams won three grand slam tournaments for a reason. This was a time when she seemed almost unbeatable in the biggest moments. The win was one mistake, but she erased all unforced errors from her game and Clijsters cowered. Williams saved two match points, won six matches in a row and then held off her sister, Venus, in her fourth consecutive Grand Slam final to seal the “Serena Slam”.
It was a classic Serena Williams moment, scrapped to death, an attitude that defined her career and fueled her success. “Until you shake their hand, they don’t think they’re going to lose,” says Mary Carillo, a former doubles champion turned broadcaster. “They really don’t believe it. And that, I think, was what the other players in the locker room really felt: ‘You can have a streak and a break on me, but do you really think you’re going to beat me?’”
A constant display of 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’ story, the younger sister was an afterthought. Venus entered the storm first, validating the endless hype in the first time at the age of 14, almost beaten by Arantxa Sánchez Vicario. A year later, Serena’s career began with a relative whimper, dismantling 1-6, 1-6 in the first qualifying round of the Canadian Open. When Richard Williams warned that Serena would be even better, few people listened.
While Venus always drew power from her height, Serena took time to fill out her frame, which would play a defining role in her growth. Instead of the range of Venus, she learned how to draw opponents off the court with sharp angles, cleverly build points of attack and, when all else failed, work to the finish. In 1999, at the age of 17, she began to take advantage of her powers, which became associated with her name to devastating consequences.
She capped off a remarkable breakthrough year with an impressive string of wins at the 1999 US Open: Clijsters, Wimbledon champion Conchita Martínez, Monica Seles No. the five matches were decided in three brutal sets, but at the end of the week Williams emerged as the grand slam champion. “Five hall of famers,” says Pam Shriver, a hall of fame player herself. “You look at the person she hit. It was incredible.”
Dominance did not follow immediately. It was Venus who started collecting major titles first, winning four of six grand slam titles in 2000 and 2001. Then Serena rose above her sister’s top level. By 2003, she was one of the greatest hitters of all time and one of the most devastating hitters of the ball. Their service was smooth, reliable and vicious. With her and Venus also going through double titles, she had developed a whole game. “It almost seemed like they were playing a different sport,” says Carillo.
The influence of the Williams sisters can best be seen in the constant challenge of their rivals. The late 90s were a period of transition in the last years of Steffi Graf, with a group of dynamic, heroic and energetic young talents led initially by Hingis, a genius on the court but whose sensitive brilliance was becoming increasingly ineffective in front of her. Williams’ dominance, along with Davenport and Jennifer Capriati’s forceful shot-making, closed his window of opportunity. By 2002, with Venus and Serena playing in four consecutive grand slam finals, she was done.
“When the bar is raised that high, in that much of a hurry, it’s going to be hard to adjust to,” Carillo says. “You play your whole young life playing one way and now suddenly two players are saying: ‘OK, you’re really good, I know you’ve been doing this all your life but get enough of this.’ What are you supposed to do? Change your grip? Hit more of an open position?”
Karolina Pliskova, 30, is one of the few top players today who is old enough to have seen the Williams sisters in their prime. She and her twin sister, Kristyna, saw in them the aggressive style of play they wanted to achieve. “Before them tennis was completely different,” says Karolina.
As some fell away during the first wave of Williams’ leadership, others adapted. Clijsters was already an elite athlete and Justine Henin emerged in 2003 with added muscle. Under the right circumstances, Henin was happy to moderate Serena’s power with her diversity and fight her own weapons. But although the Williams sisters lived for more than 25 years, the challenge of keeping up burned her out. By 2008, both Henin and Clijsters had announced their first retirements.
‘There was so much competition she could have had,’ says Shriver. “It wasn’t her fault. No one came in the way she raised again and again. People say she didn’t have the Chris [Evert] and Martin [Navratilova] competition. You can only play who is there. Think of all the champions she has seen, starting with Graf, Hingis, Clijsters, Henin, Capriati, Davenport.”
The Williams sisters had entered the sport at the time and patience was a key feature of most players, groundstrokes failed to be thrown with ineffective, elaborate moves that could not cope with such speed. They didn’t invent the power game – Seles, Capriati, Davenport and Mary Pierce went before them – but their athleticism and service took them to unimaginable places. Their influence was reflected in those who followed, such as the emergence of Maria Sharapova, who studied them in her youth and imitated their aggressive spirit, but without the athleticism or the name.
As essential as it was in the history of women’s tennis, Serena’s first peak was short-lived in the context of her 27-year career. By the end of 2003, she had undergone knee surgery and then her life was overshadowed by the killing of her sister, Yetunde. The following years would be marked by inactivity, depression and her diving ranking, a slump that set the stage for one of her many legendary adventures after winning the 2007 Australian Open.
As her career progressed and she moved further from her athletic peak, Serena’s excellent serve became an integral part of her game. “Technically, it was perfect,” says Carillo. “It was divine. His toss never changed. It never changed so you couldn’t read it very well. I think her serve out wide on the deuce court was my favorite serve of all time.”
Shriver was one of her own great servers, and she believes that Serena’s serve has revolutionized the entire game. “I think more people in the women’s game have realized that the serve needs to be a weapon,” says Shriver. “I think that’s one of his legacies. I think the utility in women’s tennis has been more appreciated in the last 10 years and I’ve worked on it.”
Serena’s legacy was not only defined by her game. At the US Open, a quick glance at the number of black fans and people of color in attendance underscores how its success has affected those who watch, participate and claim it as their own. “When you walk around the grounds now compared to 25 years ago, it looks completely different,” says Shriver. “The appeal to bring in people of color. I don’t think so Arthur [Ashe] There was an impact of this kind. Of course Althea [Gibson] was not. They really changed who comes to see tennis and who plays. That’s a great legacy there.”
And also who he plays at the highest level. Before the Williams sisters, Evonne Goolagong and Zina Garrison were the only black women to reach grand slam finals in the Open era. In the last five years alone, Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens, Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff have achieved that distinction. Years after this farewell is over, more will follow.