Serena’s Last Dance

On three decades of watching the GOAT

USA's Serena Williams celebrates her win against Estonia's Anett Kontaveit during their 2022 US Open...
Jake Nevins
victory laps

It was amusing to watch the proceedings on Monday evening at the U.S. Open, where Serena Williams, 40 years old and ranked 605th in the world, having played just a handful of matches over the last 14 months, summoned something close to vintage form to win her opening match against 80th-ranked Danka Kovinic in straight sets. Tournament organizers, meanwhile, seemed prepared for her to lose, so they went forward with a post-game ceremony featuring remarks from two esteemed Kings, Gayle and Billie Jean, and a reliably florid montage narrated by Oprah Winfrey. “I didn’t expect any of this,” Serena said. This was not some “who, me?!” show of false modesty. Surely, Serena must have known she’d be feted properly at her final tournament, the place where she won her very first Grand Slam 23 years ago. But it was only the first round. Did we really expect her to go so quietly?

Perhaps they’d have to roll out the carpet again on Wednesday night, when Serena faced a considerably taller task against the number two-ranked Anett Kontaveit, 14 years her junior. Not so fast! Striking the ball with clean, controlled aggression, displaying a spring in her step we haven’t seen in at least three years, Serena won again. When asked in her post-match interview if she was surprised by her level of play—a reasonable question, if you watched the first several matches of her farewell tour earlier this summer—she had Mary Joe Fernandez repeat herself. Then Serena giggled. “I’m just Serena,” she replied. A charming soundbite, the kind of thing social media eats up—and it did. And yet, in a match where she won only one more total point than her opponent, this was precisely the difference: for as long as she’s played tennis, Serena has recognized the implications of being Serena, i.e. of being without peer.

Serena Williams turned pro in October of 1995, when I was four months old. Sometime in the ensuing years, as I stood inches from the television, wielding the remote control as a tennis racquet to emulate her strokes, I decided, in the intransigent and enthusiastic manner with which a child first develops sensibilities of their own, that she was my favorite player. On a trip to Houston in 2004, I anxiously approached her with my father’s bar napkin in hand. In black sharpie, with neither much notice nor irritation, she signed it with an “S”—large, curling towards infinity—and went on her way. She was just 22 years old, having won only the first six of her eventual 23 Grand Slams, but she understood herself, even then, as “S,” needing no special distinction.

Later that year, in a match that single-handedly led to the installment of a video replay system in professional tennis, I sobbed as chair umpire Mariana Alves made a series of erroneous calls against Serena in her U.S. Open quarterfinal against Jennifer Capriati. “That ball was so in,” Serena, on the verge of tears, pleaded, only to watch another crisp, down-the-line winner suffer the same fate. “That ball was so in,” I repeated, confused and outraged. Serena would lose the match but, amazingly, keep her cool, attentive even in the heat of competition to her and Venus’s remarkable burden as two young Black women—playing what was, then, a modern and more physically imposing style of baseline tennis—in a historically white and provincial sport. If the umpires had it out for her, she would have to work harder, get faster, become stronger. And so she won the next Grand Slam, the 2005 Australian Open, and another 16 majors after that.

That strength, power, and speed are the most well-documented attributes of Serena’s game is no accident. So completely did she and Venus change women’s tennis that the sport’s establishment, needing to account for the unlikely reigns of two Black women from Compton with beads in their hair, has long emphasized Serena’s muscular body and the sheer force of her strokes, which is indeed formidable. The reality is that, by the late 2000s, other players on the tour could hit the ball nearly as hard, and the women’s game had refashioned itself in the mold of the sisters Williams. Serena, then, became a craftier player; she sharpened her short angles; she constructed points with more savvy; she even diversified her serve, which was already the most technically sound in the game’s history. She won 10 of her 23 slams in her thirties, including two more French Opens, the major that most rewards patience, endurance, and spin. But it appears to provide some comfort to the stewards of the game’s history to think of her more reductively, as a mass of muscle blasting the ball past diminutive opponents. More accurately, Serena pioneered the modern game and then, after making it the norm, gave it new dimensions, showing herself to be not just stronger and faster than her rivals but smarter and gutsier, too.

About those guts: since Serena announced, in an essay and cover story for Vogue last month, that the 2022 U.S. Open would be her last, I’ve been rewatching some of her old matches, staving off the end. One in particular stands out, a 2007 Wimbledon quarterfinal against the lanky, talented Slovakian Daniela Hantuchova. At 5-5 in the second set, Serena’s left calf starts to cramp, the knot of muscle contracting painfully as she collapses on the grass. Trainers run to the baseline to tend to her. Surely she’ll have to retire from the match. But Serena comes to her feet, carefully, and then violently thwacks her calf with her racquet three times, as if hammering a nail. She limps through the next few games, losing the second set, waiting for the muscle to loosen up. Once it does, she wins the third set and the match pretty comfortably. She didn’t win Wimbledon that year; Justine Henin, who had Serena’s number in 2007, beat her in the next round. But who can forget the bizarre and defiant image of Serena turning the racquet on herself, willing her calf into submission?

Serena pioneered the modern game and then gave it new dimensions, showing herself to be not just stronger and faster than her rivals but smarter and gutsier, too.

It’s the intangibles, as much as anything else, that make Serena the greatest of all time— that make her “S.” On countless occasions, in a sport where on-court coaching is illegal, where the depth of the court and the size of a stadium and the hush of a crowd can make a player feel utterly solitary, she quite simply found another gear. She’d bend her knees just a bit more on her backhand; she’d grunt a little louder. She’d stare down a spot on her serve and then hit it, almost invariably. And when the fists pumps began, well, good luck. “There were so many matches I won because something made me angry or someone counted me out,” she wrote in the Vogue essay. Early on, like in 2001 at Indian Wells, a tournament she subsequently boycotted for over a decade, she was subject to racist taunts from the crowd. Other times she just held a grudge: in 2004, a 17-year-old Maria Sharapova beat Serena twice, in the Wimbledon final and the year-end championships. Naturally, Serena won their next 19 matches. And you could argue one of them, her 6-0, 6-1 drubbing of Sharapova in the 2012 Olympic gold medal match, is the cleanest, most comprehensive win of Serena’s career.

“There were so many matches I won because something made me angry or someone counted me out.”

In the strained and perfunctory pre-match interviews players are required to give the press, Serena cut an unflappable figure. She was going to go out there and “play my game,” she would say, offering little insight and managing expectations, only to play her game and then raise them again. She liked to say she had nothing left to prove, as if to remind us what a privilege it was to watch her in the first place. But over time, as history came into sharper focus, she would get nervous, her feet would freeze, and she appeared addled by the pursuit of records she didn’t really need to substantiate her claim as the greatest player ever. At the 2015 U.S. Open, where Serena was aiming to be the first woman since 1988 to win all four slams in a calendar year, she lost as much to expectation as to 43rd ranked Roberta Vinci, who’d already booked herself a flight out of New York. Improbably, after giving birth in 2017, Serena reached another four Major finals; a win in any one of them would have given her 24 Grand Slams, the all-time record, a statistical and therefore airtight claim to GOAT-ness. But when she lost the 2018 and 2019 U.S. Open finals to Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu, it was not, as pundits took to saying, a passing of the torch, but something altogether more surreal: a new generation of tennis players, the kids who’d watched Serena on TV, and whose games bear her distinct imprint, was now old enough to beat her.

There is nothing sports fans love so much as a storybook ending. And yet the relentless toil of elite competition on an athlete’s mind and body necessarily deprives us of the narrative satisfaction: for every Pete Sampras, going out in a blaze of glory at the 2002 U.S. Open, there are thousands more who, seeing diminishing returns, must put ego aside and determine when to stop doing the thing they have done their whole lives. For Serena, that time is roughly now. But the terms, as always, will be her own.

Jake Nevins is a writer and reporter living in Brooklyn.