The term “iconic” is overused. We’ve come to call every impressive play, each big game, and dozens of standout athletes “iconic.” It’s born from a desire to want our place in time and space to feel special and meaningful. However, when it comes to Serena Williams, we can push those caveats aside: there are no concerns of hyperbole — Serena is unquestionably one of biggest icons in sports history, and in the pantheon with the greatest athletes of all time.
Williams announced her plans to retire from tennis on Tuesday, poised to leave the game after the U.S. Open. It’s not a surprising announcement, as Serena has struggled to return to form from a hamstring injury that kept her out of the Open last year, and was eliminated by France’s Harmony Tan in the opening round of Wimbledon in June. There is a world where Williams keeps competing and struggling, but rather than drag things out she’s ready to leave on her own terms — revealing her plans to leave the sport in a cover story with Vogue magazine, along with it an Instagram post that encapsulated why she’s ready to walk away from tennis.
“Vogue. September issue Cover. There comes a time in life when we have to decide to move in a different direction. That time is always hard when you love something so much. My goodness do I enjoy tennis. But now, the countdown has begun. I have to focus on being a mom, my spiritual goals and finally discovering a different, but just exciting Serena. I’m gonna relish these next few weeks.”
The numbers speak for themselves. 23 Grand Slam wins, the most of any player in the Open Era. A mind-boggling 319 weeks ranked No. 1 in the world, including a 186 week consecutive run from 2013-16 where nobody challenged to be near Williams’ level for over three years. Her career has been one of invention, reinvention, triumph, setback, and perseverance to always be a part of the conversation when it comes to women’s tennis — all while turning the game on its head and changing tennis forever.
That is the lasting impact of Serena Williams. That is her legacy. There have always been amazing women who played the game of tennis — from Billie Jean King, to Martina Navratilova, to the legendary back-and-forth between Monica Seles and Steffi Graf in the early 90s, which dovetailed into Martina Hingis vs. Lindsey Davenport in the early 2000s, but nobody functionally changed the game like Venus and Serena Williams, and by extension, nobody made the next generation believe they had a chance to be great too like Serena.
The Williams sisters broke onto the scene at a weird time for women’s tennis. With Seles and Graf slowing down, the game was desperate for a new marketable mega star. There were great players, sure, but nobody who quite captured the imagination like the stars of the past. It led to ludicrous attempts to brand Anna Kournikova as the next “great one,” largely based off her looks and marketability, rather than her athletic prowess. When Venus took over in 2002 it was a sea change, her baseline power, serving ability and imposing physical traits blew away the competition. When Serena ascended and joined her, tennis was changed forever.
There’s a fundamental difference not only in how Venus and Serena play, but the perception of each player. It was easy to look at Venus as a kid and say “I can never be like her,” appreciating her 6’1 height and octopus-like reach at the net — but Serena was smaller, more relatable, her build was more attainable. Sure, there was an understanding that her unparalleled strength was the product of training and effort, but being like Serena felt like a more attainable goal than her sister. The Williams sisters were also unapologetically themselves. They didn’t change for the whims of a marketing executive. Instead they told the world “yeah, we’re from the inner city. No, we didn’t grow up with a silver spoon. Work hard and you can be us too.”
The Williams’ made tennis cool to an entire generation of kids. Their lasting impact is still felt today, with Naomi Osaka, Coco Grauff, and world No. 1 Iga Świątek all citing Serena as influences. If you look at the playing styles of every top woman in tennis right now you’ll see the fingerprints of Serena on their careers: Aggressive, all-court play. It was a style of tennis traditionally attributed to men, with women were often told to succeed in one area in at the expense of everything else. They were expected to sit on the baseline, serve and volley, or play all-court with craftiness and touch. The idea that power could be blended with an all-around game was largely believed impossible for women until Venus and Serena changed the game.
On top of all this is the incontrovertible reality that, when healthy, there was no competition for Serena Williams. Her biggest noted challenger was Maria Sharapova, but even then there was no comparison. Serena held a 20-2 head-to-head against the Russian, brushing her off like a gnat when they met in tournaments — hell, Sharapova only managed to push Serena to three sets a total of four times in their 22 meetings.
Serena’s career is one of dominance. It’s one of unparalleled grace off the court, married with unmatched ferocity with a racquet in her hand. It was about pushing through racial and socioeconomic barriers to dominate a sport once held to be a folly for the rich, rather than an opportunity for anyone. In doing so she changed the game for the better, inspiring a new generation of players who play with power, fire and make the sport far more exciting as a result.
When Williams finally says goodbye to the game we will say farewell to one of the greatest players of all-time, but we’ll see her influence live on for eternity as someone who altered the course of women’s tennis. Her evolutionary leaps will echo forever as the athletes she inspired go on to inspire others. Serena Williams is an unparalleled icon, and someone we will never, ever forget for getting the privilege of watching her play in her prime.