As Serena Williams stood two wins away from one of the ultimate achievements in her sport, it all seemed to be falling 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 warm January night in Melbourne, though, she was on the brink of a crushing defeat, trailing Kim Clijsters 1-5 in the third set of their 2003 Australian Open semi-final.
But Williams had won three grand slam tournaments in a row for a reason. This was a time when she seemed almost unbeatable in the biggest moments. Defeat was one mistake away, but she eradicated all unforced errors from her game as Clijsters cowered. Williams saved two match points, she won six games in a row and then she held off her sister, Venus, in their fourth successive grand slam final to seal the “Serena Slam”.
It was a classic Serena Williams moment, scrapping until the death, a mentality that has defined her career and driven her success. “Until you’re shaking hands with them, they do not think they’re going to lose,” laughs Mary Carillo, the former doubles champion turned broadcaster. “They really don’t believe it. And that, I think, was a thing that the other players in the locker room really felt: ‘You can have a set and a break lead on me, but do you really think you’re going to beat me?’”
With constant demonstrations of her physical and mental fortitude, 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 the Williams story, the younger sister was an afterthought. Venus had entered the storm first, validating the endless hype in her debut at 14 years old, 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 always drew power from her height, Serena took time to fill out her frame, which would play a defining role in her growth. In lieu of Venus’s range, she learned how to drag opponents off the court with sharp angles, to smartly construct attacking points and, when all else failed, to hustle until the end. In 1999, aged 17, she truly began to harness her power, which combined with her nous for destructive consequences.
She ended a remarkable breakthrough year with an all-time great series of wins at the 1999 US Open: Clijsters, Wimbledon champion Conchita Martínez, world No 4 Monica Seles, No 2-ranked Lindsay Davenport, Martina Hingis, the No 1. Four of the five matches were decided in three brutal sets, yet at the end of the week Williams stood as a grand slam champion. “Five hall of famers,” says Pam Shriver, a hall of fame player herself. “You look at who she beat. It was unbelievable.”
Dominance did not immediately follow. It was Venus who began to rack up major titles first, winning four of six grand slam titles across 2000 and 2001. Then Serena simply rose above her sister’s top level. By 2003, she was one of the greatest movers of all time and one of the most destructive ball-strikers. Her serve was smooth, reliable and vicious. As she and Venus also rolled through doubles titles, she had developed a complete game. “It almost seemed like they were playing a different sport,” says Carillo.
The impact of the Williams sisters is best reflected in the fleeting challenges of their rivals. The late 90s had been a period of transition in the final years of Steffi Graf, with a group of dynamic, brash and charismatic young talents initially headed by Hingis, a genius on the court but whose delicate guile was increasingly inefficient in their presence. The Williams dominance, along with the forceful shot-making of Davenport and Jennifer Capriati, slammed her window of opportunity shut. By 2002, as Venus and Serena played in four consecutive grand slam finals, she was done.
“When the bar is raised that high, in that much of a hurry, it’s gonna be a hard thing to adjust to,” says Carillo. “You play your whole young life playing one way and now all of a sudden there are two players saying: ‘OK, you’re really good, I know you’ve been doing this your whole life but get a load of this.’ What are you supposed to do? Change your grips? Hit more of an open stance?”
Karolina Pliskova, 30, is one of the few current top players today old enough to have seen the Williams sisters during the early days. She and her twin sister, Kristyna, saw in them the attacking style of play they wished to execute. “Before them tennis was completely different,” Karolina says.
As some fell away during the first wave of Williams dominance, others adapted. Clijsters was already a supreme athlete while Justine Henin emerged in 2003 with added muscle. Under the right circumstances, Henin found joy in blunting Serena’s power with her variety and countering with her own weapons. But while the Williams sisters lasted 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 were so many rivalries that she could’ve had,” says Shriver. “It wasn’t her fault. Nobody stepped up the way she stepped up time and time again. People say she didn’t have the Chris [Evert] and Martina [Navratilova] rivalry. You can only play who’s there. Think of all the champions she saw off, starting with Graf, Hingis, Clijsters, Henin, Capriati, Davenport.”
The Williams sisters had entered the sport at a time guile and patience were core features of most players, groundstrokes unwound with elaborate, inefficient motions incapable of dealing with such pace. They did not invent the power game – Seles, Capriati, Davenport and Mary Pierce preceded them – but their athleticism and serving took it 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 mimicked their attacking mindsets, but without the athleticism or nous to measure up.
As essential as it was in the history of women’s tennis, that first peak of Serena’s 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 killing of her sister, Yetunde. Her following years would be marked by inactivity, depression and her plummeting ranking, a fall that set the stage for one of her numerous legendary comebacks as she won the 2007 Australian Open.
As her career lengthened and she moved further from her athletic peak, Serena’s all-time great serve became an even more central part of her game. “Technically, it was perfect,” says Carillo. “It was divine. Her toss never varied. It just never changed so you couldn’t read it well. Her serve wide to the deuce court is, I think, my favourite serve of all time.”
Shriver was one of the great servers of her own time, and she believes that Serena’s serve has been transformative for the entire game. “I think that more people realised in the women’s game that the serve needed to be a weapon,” Shriver says. “I think that’s one of her legacies. I do feel like the serve in women’s tennis in the last 10 years has been appreciated more and worked on more.”
Serena’s legacy was not only defined by her game. At the US Open, a brief look at the number of black fans and people of colour present underlines how their success has affected who watches, participates and claims it as their own. “When you walk around the grounds now versus 25 years ago, it looks totally different,” says Shriver. “The appeal to bring in people of colour. I don’t think Arthur [Ashe] had this kind of impact. Obviously Althea [Gibson] didn’t. They’ve really changed who comes to watch tennis and who plays. That’s a big legacy right there.”
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 grand slam finals in the Open era. In the past five years alone, Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens, Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff have all achieved that distinction. Years after this grand farewell is complete, more will follow.