The most remarkable game I’ve seen Serena Williams play live was one where I was just outside the stadium.
It was seven years ago at Wimbledon and Williams, at the age of 33, had already won the first two stages of the Grand Slam. She had crushed her first two opponents at the All-England Lawn Tennis Club but found herself in the third round against Heather Watson, a 22-year-old Briton on a heater.
Watson had dropped the first set and looked likely to drop the second before winning three straight games to pull it out. She also won the first three games of the third set. I left Center Court to go to Henman’s Hill, the grassy slope that the English public watched on a big screen and went a little crazy. He bobbed and roared as Watson battled a living legend.
But Williams fought back, and it wasn’t so much the skill or athleticism that stood out, but the way she seemed to throw herself into every shot. It was as if she swung a telephone pole and lunged with all the effort she could muster.
Watson couldn’t stop the attack and Williams would win that tournament too. That was her 21st Grand Slam singles title. The march to 24, which would equal Margaret Court’s all-time record, was almost inevitable.
Seven years later, that is anything but improbable. Williams announced on Tuesday that she will retire from tennis in a few weeks after the US Open – sorry, “evolving away from it”. Suddenly, her second-round match at the National Bank Open in Toronto on Wednesday night turned into a tent tennis event. She may only have a few left.
Belinda Bencic, in the unenviable role of spoiler, put a damper on the evening’s festivities with a perfunctory 6-2, 6-4 victory. Williams, who had just played her third game of 2022, was clearly rusty and outmatched by a good opponent.
“It was a lot of emotions,” Williams said after the game. “I wish I could have played better, but Belinda played so well today.”
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As the crowd at Sobeys Stadium cheered her on, Williams fought back tears.
“I love you,” she said. “I’m bad at saying goodbye, but goodbye, Toronto.”
And so she’s one step closer to the end of a career that’s both unmatched and a little hilarious. It’s not just all the Slams and the 73 WTA wins and the four Olympic gold medals. It’s that the career was so ridiculously long, with a fallow period in the middle where she was reasonably distracted by other pursuits, got injured and maybe even got a little bored with tennis.
She was dominant in her early 20s, winning seven Slams before turning 24. Then relative calm came, but when she was in her thirties, she made another 10. That part is just crazy. The best players in the women’s game have historically won their titles in bunches, over a period of less than a decade. Steffi Graf won 20 of her 22 in a span of nine seasons. Martina Navratilova won 15 of her 18 in a span of seven years. Martin Hingis is a year older than Williams and won the last of her five Slams in 1999, the year Serena won her first. Williams won one Slam before Justine Henin won her first of seven. Since Henin won her last, Williams has won 17 more.
Everything she has accomplished must also be viewed through the prism of her backstory. Born to a working-class family in Compton, California, Serena and older sister Venus were essentially raised to become tennis champions by a father, Richard, who saw the sport as their path to fame and fortune. Whatever one considers of this a parenting strategy – the recent movie “King Richard” captivated the father, but whether his daughters were great in spite of him remains an open question – there is no denying that the Williamses were forever a sport. have changed that was and is mainly for wealthy whites. Coco Gauff, the 18-year-old American who won the 10 . ise Seed in Toronto, said she grew up inspired by Williams as a powerful black role model. “I mean, that’s why I play tennis,” Gauff said.
The attention given to them from an early age has not always been good. The sisters refused to play the Indian Wells tournament for years because of racial abuse the family suffered there early in their careers, and the Williamses were far from loved when the sisters rose to prominence. She’s had some hot flashes, most notably in the 2018 US Open final, and has been criticized over the years for everything from her behavior on the track to her outside interests to her fashion choices. She struggled with the press in her early seasons, but in the late stages of her career, she seemed to have decided to rise above it all.
At Wimbledon in 2015, the British press did what the British press does, which is to try to make a controversy out of everything. They asked Serena about clothes and warnings about fairness and heat, anyone desperate for a WIMBLEDON SEXISM ROW cup of anything. Williams was stunned by it all, which made sense for someone who had dealt with misogyny and racism on tour from a young age. She said she wouldn’t get caught up in “that drama.”
It was reminiscent of the way she played at the time: seemingly playing with her opponents before hitting scornful aces on the court.
She would add two more Slams after that Wimbledon title, another at the All-England Club and another in Melbourne in 2017, when she was in the early stages of pregnancy. There were complications after the birth of her daughter, Olympia, and multiple surgeries. She has since returned to four Slam finals but lost them all, most recently to Bianca Andreescu in 2019. She will have another shot at it, in New York in about three weeks.
Has the pursuit of Slam number 24 been a bit unnecessary in the end? Perhaps. Court won 12 of hers as an amateur, when tennis tournaments shared more with garden parties than with major sporting events.
But what if she ends up falling a little short? It’s a miracle, with all she’s done, that Serena Williams has kept trying. It’s noteworthy that she has continued to fight, yes, but it’s not surprising.