You could build Serena Williams’s pedestal from her records. Pile up the 23 grand slam singles titles, more than anyone else has won in the Open era, and her 16 grand slam doubles titles, too. Add it to the 319 weeks she spent at the top of the world rankings, eight spells spread across 15 years, the longest stretch 186 weeks in a row. Combine it with the first “Serena slam” she won in 2002-03, all four majors back-to-back, and the second, when she did it all over again in 2014-15. Throw in the four gold medals she has won at the Olympics. You could keep on, until you had filled this page and the next with her achievements.
You could measure the height of her peaks, chart how much better she was than everyone else at her best, at the Miami Open in 2002, maybe, when she became the second woman in history to beat the world’s top-three ranked players in a single tournament, Martina Hingis, Jennifer Capriati and her elder sister Venus, in back-to-back matches and without dropping a set. Or you could look at how she handled herself in some of her hardest moments on court, the match points she overcame in the semi-finals of three of her grand slam victories, against Kim Clijsters, Maria Sharapova and Elena Dementieva.
You could map how long she has been on top, explain that she’s the oldest woman to ever be ranked No 1 in the world, that her 73 singles titles are spread across four decades, that she started her professional career beating women who were twice her age and will finish it beating girls who are half as young, that among everything else, she holds the record for the longest span between her first and last titles at Wimbledon, and at Roland Garros, and at the US Open, and at the Australian Open. That she has won more individual matches at each of the slams than any other women in the Open era.
You could do all that and you still wouldn’t get close to capturing what makes her great. Because you wouldn’t know what she has had to do, what she has had to go through, as she has grown from being a young black girl in Compton, Los Angeles, living in the shadow of her sister, into one of the wealthiest, most successful athletes in the world. Williams’s only privileges were her own talent and ambition, and with them, she has grown into one of the most iconic figures in sport.
The records don’t tell you about the accidents, illnesses and tragedies she has suffered, which could have broken her, would have broken almost anyone else. About the murder of her half-sister Yetunde Price in 2003, killed in Compton in 2003, an innocent bystander in a gang shooting. Or about the first pulmonary embolism she suffered in 2011, blood clots in the lungs that almost killed her then, and then again in the aftermath of the emergency C-section she had when her daughter was born in 2017. Or the postnatal depression she struggled with in the weeks and months afterwards.
And they say nothing about the way Williams has been treated. How she was so often held to a different standard, told to keep her anger in check because the world doesn’t allow black women the same leeway it affords white men, something which was proved again when her temper did snap in the US Open final in 2018 and the backlash against her made headlines around the world. “This incident exemplified how thousands of women in every area of the workforce are treated every day,” Williams wrote afterwards, “We are not allowed to have emotions, we are not allowed to be passionate. We are told to sit down and be quiet.”
Imagine how much anger she must be holding back, after all the prejudice she’s faced down, and the bullshit she’s put up with, the racism and the misogyny, overt, covert, and insinuated. It’s there in the way she’s been drawn, written, and talked about, there in the way people diminished her technique and her intelligence at the expense of emphasising her power, and the way they questioned her commitment. There in the way they accused her and her sister of match-fixing, arranging their games according to their father’s orders. There in the way they stereotyped her, degraded her appearance, derided her beauty, and sexualised her body.
It’s in the countless insults and aggressions that have been thrown at her. Like the time Fox Sports thought it was fine to compare her backside to “an oozing pumpkin”, or the Daily Telegraph to write that her “breasts were registered to vote in a different US state from the rest of her”. There in the inequalities she’s still struggling to overcome. Like how, for years, she earned less than less successful rivals, how, even now, she earns less than less successful men, and is told by officials she should “thank God” for it.
And it will spill out again now as people read this and complain that her achievements are overrated, the prejudices exaggerated. Just as Hingis said when Richard Williams spoke about the abuse thrown at him and his daughters at Indian Wells in 2001. “I definitely don’t feel like there is racism on the tour,” she told the press. “I would even say, because, you know, they may be black, they have a lot of other advantages you know, because they can always say it’s racism or something like that, and it’s not the case at all.” Williams knows. She has always known. And now, as she continues to speak out, everyone who didn’t is starting to know it too. “The cycles of poverty, discrimination and sexism,” she wrote in 2018, “are much, much harder to break than the record for grand slam titles.”
Roll of honour
23 grand slam singles titles
Australian Open: 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2017
French Open: 2002, 2013, 2015
Wimbledon: 2002, 2003, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2016
US Open: 1999, 2002, 2008, 2012, 2013, 2014
73 career singles titles; 319 weeks at No 1
14 grand slam women’s doubles titles (all with Venus Williams)
Australian Open 2001, 2003, 2009, 2010
French Open 1999, 2010
Wimbledon 2000, 2002, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2016
US Open 1999, 2009
2 grand slam mixed doubles titles
US Open 1998
4 Olympics titles: London 2012 (singles); Sydney 2000, Beijing 2008, London 2012 (doubles)
From the archive
At last the whiff of cordite. Serena and Venus Williams, whose combative natures have deserted them in the past when they have confronted each other across the net, produced a Wimbledon women’s final during which you half expected gun smoke to drift across Centre Court. After 78 minutes of serious ball-bashing, Serena won 7-6 (7-4) 6-3 to depose her older sister as champion and become the first player since Steffi Graf in 1996 to complete the exacting double of capturing the French Open on clay and the Wimbledon title on grass in the space of a month.
None of their eight previous meetings, three of them won by Serena, had convinced sceptics that the American siblings did not view their matches as glorified practice sessions. More the whiff of damp squibs than cordite. Here, though, under brightening skies, was a contest of genuine fury that finally offered hope that the long sequence of finals we can look forward to between the world’s top-ranked players – Serena will overtake Venus to move up to number one tomorrow – will be worthy of our anticipation. Yesterday, Serena, who at 20 is 15 months younger than her sister, dropped her racket to the turf in her moment of victory and stood rooted to the spot for a few seconds. With the sun now glinting on the tiara that she wears to keep her blonde tresses in place, she then waved to the crowd, cast a glance at her mother Oracene sat in the stands and ran forward to put a consoling arm round Venus’s shoulders, her joy at winning her third grand-slam title – she also won the 1999 US Open – diluted by the fact that her best friend had just lost.