“Really, I am unique.” In 2008, in an interview with CNN, Serena Williams defined herself. It could be read as a form of arrogance, but it was simply clarity of thought, without false modesty. Just as when later in the same interview she claimed:
I’m convinced to be the best, and to be my only adversary.
She is right. She is unique. That was true in 2008 and maybe even more so today. Her game, in the landscape of women’s tennis, remains unique. Her journey. Her longevity. Her character. There has only ever been one Serena Williams and there will never be another.
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Is she the greatest player in the history of women’s tennis? The greatest champion across the sport? The debate is without end, and a case can be made for [Roger] Federer, [Rafael] Nadal and [Novak] Djokovic in that debate. But really for each, one must judge them according to your own sensibilities, tastes, preferences and criteria.
Williams has struggled for the last four years to win her 24th Grand Slam, the record of victories held by Margaret Court. Is she greater than Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, who took women’s tennis to the peak of its popularity? Better than Steffi Graf? Than Billie Jean King? Everyone has their opinion, but nobody can claim to know the definitive answer. The case for Serena is strong.
In terms of her approach to the game, she brought a revolution. The first time we heard of her was from the mouth of her sister, Venus, 15 months her senior. At the age of 16, Venus emerged on the circuit. She was going to be excellent, that was obvious. But Venus warned: “My little sister, Serena, she is going to be on the circuit soon, and she’s even better than me.” She didn’t lie.
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Serena was not yet 18 when she won her first Grand Slam, the US Open, in 1999. In the final against Martina Hingis, Williams showed that the tennis of the 21st Century had arrived. It was not a question of taste, it was something else. It was Serena. Two decades later nobody has surpassed her. That’s just how far ahead of her time she was.
Williams won her first Grand Slam as a teenager and won her most recent Grand Slam at the start of her pregnancy. From a young woman to the mother of a family, we have seen this teenager grow up: the budding youngster and the elder stateswoman. The most impressive thing is that her passion remains intact as she approaches 40, for the game and for competition.
From the outset, the Williams sisters brought a real freshness, but for many, they wouldn’t last. Too marketed, two robotic, inculcated by a father, Richard, obsessed by the success of his children and wanting to see them get to the peak of their game. That was his dream, some thought, more than it was theirs. At 40 and 39 years old, they are still here. For Serena in particular, she has been written off too many times, and has always come back.
Her status as a great champion is unquestionable, she already holds a place of huge importance in her time. But it’s not just that for her. She’s a personality, a star, having largely transcended her sport. More than a prize list, it’s a story. She’s a chance from Compton, a suburb south of Los Angeles, deprived, poor and crime-ridden, baptised in the 80s as the American capital of crime. It was there that she hit a ball for the first time aged four, on terrain unworthy of her name,
To get his family out of this environment, Richard Williams took them to Florida. After poverty, Serena discovered racism. Williams Snr took them off the official youth circuit to protect his children from insults. More than the anger or bitterness, Serena retained her taste for the fight, a phenomenal will and with the strength of her own convictions to boycott Indian Wells for 15 years.
“If I am different,” she said in 2008, “It’s because my life has been hard, above all at the start.” Even with glory and riches, her life would not always be a bed of roses. In the 25 years of her career, she has known many health setbacks, some so serious that some believed she had lost her chance of playing at the highest level of sport in 2011 after a pulmonary embolism. There were family tragedies, such as the murder of her half-sister Yetunde in 2003. She has known many lows.
She can annoy, Serena. She is sometimes irritating. She can slip up, even, on the courts. She’s not a saint but she is unique.
Trailblazers: Eurosport celebrates sport’s greatest pioneers with 10-part series
Serena Wiliams is the subject of the first episode of Trailblazers, a 10-part series showcasing sport’s greatest stories and heroes who inspired meaningful change.
The Australian Open is live on Eurosport. Watch every match live and ad-free on the Eurosport app and eurosport.co.uk. You can download the Eurosport app for iOS and Android now.
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