For Serena Williams, the great fairytale ending we all had been hoping for just wasn’t meant to be. The 23-time Grand Slam winner and six-time US Open champion lost her third round Singles’ clash to Ajla Tomljanović 5-7, 7-6 (7-4), 1-6.
Defeat has always been hard to swallow for the fiercely competitive 40-year-old American, and the same was on full display during the first two rounds as she exhibited high-quality tennis with breathless intensity. Serena played more like a World No. 1 than someone ranked outside the top 600 as she turned back the clock to stun World No. 2 Anett Kontaveit in the second round before falling short on the third hurdle.
In the on-court interview, Serena made powerful statements about her family and her sister, thanking them for her incredible journey.
“I wouldn’t be Serena if there wasn’t Venus, so thank you, Venus. She’s the only reason that Serena Williams existed,” Serena said.
(The duo lost in the first round of the Women’s Doubles event in straight sets.)
“It’s been a fun ride. It’s the most incredible ride and journey I’ve ever been in my life,” she added.
She reserved special praises for her parents, Richard Williams and Oracene Price, who had set her and Venus on this path.
“It all started with my parents,” Williams said.
“They deserve everything, so I’m really grateful to them.“
When asked whether she might be tempted to return to tennis, she responded:
“I don’t think so but you never know.”
“I always did love Australia, though,” She later told reporters, hinting at a showing for the Australian Open in January.
For the fans, however, the message was clear: the US Open would be where she would take her final bow.
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Serena Williams is arguably one of the world’s most known athletes, let alone a tennis star. She was born in 1981 in Saginaw, Michigan, to a father who was a former sharecropper from Louisiana. Serena’s tennis journey effectively began at three years of age when her family moved to Compton, California — a city ripe with gang activity and ugly realities of life. Her father took charge of teaching Serena and her elder sister Venus not only the basics of tennis, but also the harsh realities of life.
Having started so early, it was no surprise to find Serena already ranking first in the 10-and-under division by 1991. It was at this time her father started reducing his role as his daughters’ coach and became more of a manager as the family moved to Florida. He was aware of the path he had set them on and wanted to ensure they didn’t burn out before they even began.
Serena became a pro in 1995. Within two years, she broke into the top 100 of the world rankings. A year later, she signed her first brand sponsorship: a US$12m shoe deal with Puma.
Serena’s first Grand Slam win came in 1999 as she won her first-ever US Open. She would go on to collect a modest 73 singles titles and 23 doubles titles (most of them teaming up with Venus), including four Olympic gold medals.
In 2009, Serena and Venus became the first African-American women to own part of an NFL team when they purchased shares of the Miami Dolphins.
Serena got engaged to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian in December 2016. The couple were married on November 16, 2017, at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. Serena won the 2017 Australian Open while being two months pregnant with her daughter Alexis, whom she gave birth to in September of that year and returned to the court three months later.
Despite having a career lasting over a quarter of a century, Serena has had her fair share of health scares over the years.
She experienced her first ever burnout in 2003 when she had to undergo a knee surgery. It was around this time her half-sister Yetunde Price was murdered in Los Angeles. The two events coupled in a lack of concentration that saw Serena slump to 139 in the world rankings.
She almost came close to retirement in 2011 after doctors found a blood clot in one of her lungs. Several procedures ensued, including one for removal of a hematoma. However, Serena beat all odds as her health improved by September of that year and returned to playing. She lost the US Open final to Samantha Stosur. She then bowed out in an early first-round loss at the 2012 French Open. She then returned to top form in London in July 2012, beating Polish player Agnieszka Radwanska to claim her fifth Wimbledon singles title. She later beat Maria Sharapova at the 2012 Summer Olympics to win her first gold medal in women’s singles (her first gold medal came back in 2000 Sydney Olympics in doubles tennis, which she won with Venus).
In 2017, Serena revealed she suffered major health complications while giving birth to her daughter, Alexis. She experienced sudden shortness of breath after undergoing an emergency caesarean section, which led to discovery of more blood clots in her lungs. The doctors also found a large hematoma in her abdomen that had been caused by haemorrhaging at the site of her C-section.
For an athlete of Serena’s stature, controversies were bound to follow.
In September 2009, she blasted at a lineswoman for a foot-fault call during her semi-final loss to eventual champion Kim Clijsters at the US Open. The outburst included profanity, finger-pointing and an alleged life threat to the lineswoman. While Serena downplayed the incident, the US Tennis Association fined her US$10k on the spot. Two months later, she was placed on a two-year probation period and levied a further US$82.5k fine to the Grand Slam committee. This is the largest punishment given to a tennis player to date.
In the final of the 2018 US Open against Naomi Osaka, Serena got into a heated argument with the umpire after he gave her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, a coaching violation for seemingly giving her hand signals from the stands, implying cheating. Serena denied this and accused the umpire of sexism and character assault. She was given a point penalty for smashing her racket and a further penalty for verbal abuse. Osaka went on to win the final, and Serena was fined a further US$17k for the incident.
Later in 2018, Serena was back in news after French Tennis Federation President Bernard Giudicelli announced he’d be issuing a new dress code at the French Open to prevent the reappearance of the notorious Wakandan-themed catsuit Serena wore at the tournament. Serena later went on to wear a custom-designed tutu for the start of the US Open play.
Serena Williams has had a 27-year long successful, prosperous and inspiring career. She is a household name in tennis and continues to inspire women and people of colour to strive forward in their lives. She might have played her last stroke on court as a competitor, but if her on-court persona is anything to go by, the 40-year-old is poised to begin the second half of her career in the best possible way. A woman, a mother, a businesswoman, and a ray of hope for millions of people out there, Serena Williams will go down in history as one of the most influential sportspersons the world has ever seen.
“Clearly, I’m still capable,” Williams told reporters, “but it takes a lot more than that.”
“I’m ready to be a mom, explore a different version of Serena.
“Technically, in the world I’m still super young, so I want to have a little bit of a life while I’m still walking.
“I have such a bright future ahead of me.”