Serena Williams is the most dominant and transcendent athlete on the planet, a paragon of grace and power, talent and will, confidence and vulnerability.
No one stands beside her, male or female—she’s on a plateau all her own, earned over a career marked by the kind of extended brilliance heretofore unheard of in tennis.
No one playing sports at the height of their career—since Williams arrived on the scene with beads in her braided hair—has done more. In those 16 years, starting when she was 17, she’s earned the one-word name, like Michael, Tiger, LeBron, Kobe.
“To be considered the greatest player of all generations, you have to dominate your own time, and there’s absolutely no doubt that Williams is the alpha female on the scene today,” wrote Mark Hodgkinson, author of the upcoming book, “Game, Set and Match: Secret Weapons of the World’s Top Tennis Players.” “She the greatest (woman’s tennis player) of all time.”
Hodgkinson takes the numbers and runs with them, and he can go far with the 19 singles grand slam titles Williams has secured. What takes her to a station higher than the rest is that she has four major titles after she turned 30 in a sport where the peak years are from 17 to about 25.
In other, mainstream sports, the dominant players have either waned or not done enough to eclipse Serena. Woods was supposed to be the athlete to change golf, dominate the sport and influence a generation of young Blacks to join him on tour. Hasn’t happened. He remains the only Black on the PGA Tour and his game has leveled off, making it questionable if he will catch Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors.
Kobe had his run, but age has beaten him down. He has five championships and has been brilliant, but in the NBA you need teammates to succeed. Same with LeBron, who has two championships and, while the best basketball player in the world, has not done anything close to what Serena has.
In taking out Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open last weekend, Williams ascended to rarified air. Interesting, though, is that she has defeated Sharapova 16 consecutive times, and yet during the pre-match introduction, a commentator said Sharapova, the No. 2-ranked player who has not beaten Serena in 11 years, is “widely regarded as the most popular athlete in the world.”
Not sure how that could be, but popular does not amount to “best,” anyway. Williams has been so dominant that she has a Mike Tyson effect—opponents cannot steady their rackets, so afraid of the force Serena brings, when they face her.
Best of all, though, Patrick Mouratoglou, her coach, sees Williams’ brilliance beyond her ability to track down shots, hit penetrating cross-court forehands and blistering serves.
“She also has something that maybe she was born with, and it’s her character,” Mouratoglou said, “and her character is that she refuses to lose.”
Serena has lost it on the court more than once, infamously at the U.S. Open in New York when she laced the lineswoman with a profanity-filled tirade that ended with her screaming, “I’m f…ing going to take this f…ing ball and shove it down your f…ing throat, you hear that? I swear to God.”
And there was the bizarre Wimbledon meltdown when her equilibrium clearly was off and she could not execute a simple serve. But those incidents only confirm that she’s human, not a battery-operated tennis juggernaut.
She said to the New York Times Sunday that her will to perform is a shortcoming she has to manage and led to the Wimbledon incident.
“I have a stopping issue,” she said in an interview on Sunday. “I don’t have a quit button. You just can’t press control-alt-quit with me. . . I have been taking some new vitamins and I feel great. . . The window will stay open. I do not know when to quit. Look, here I am still playing, and I’m 33.”
There’s also another side of Williams, one that speaks to her convictions. She refuses to play at Indian Wells in California after she was booed by a mostly old, white audience when she was a teenager. She and sister Venus boycotted South Carolina when it had issues with the Confederate flag. The Williams sisters have specifically targeted young Black girls to get into the sport in America’s inner cities.
Additionally, more Black young ladies—like Sloane Stephens, who beat Serena in the 2013 Australian Open, and Taylor Townsend, who moved into the top 100 in rankings—are playing on the WTA Tour, inspired by the Williams sisters.
Serena is three short of Steffi Graf’s Open-era record of 22 Grand Slam singles title and Margaret Court’s overall record of 24, which includes some amateur titles. Williams is not short on energy to make it happen.
“I feel as good as I did when I was 25,” Williams said after conquering Sharapova again. “I’m 33 but I’m getting better.”
In her case, older just means better. . . than everyone.