Rose Booth looks at whether an all-time great has reached the end of her time in the game.
On 26th September, Serena Williams turned 39. Just fifteen days previously, she was playing for a place in what would have been her 11th US Open final. She is an icon: the definition of the Greatest of All Time. But is the athlete we all thought ageless, finally reaching the end of her illustrious career?
Half of the fans who follow tennis now won’t even remember Serena Williams joining the gruelling WTA circuit. She played in a Grand Slam for the first time back in 1998, winning the US Open the following year, aged 17. Since then, she has continued to dominate the scene and repeatedly smash records. Back in 2017, she became the oldest woman to win a Grand Slam, beating her sister Venus in straight sets. Oh, and she was pregnant.
However, Serena’s loss in this year’s US Open semi-final and early exit from the French Open, has sown seeds of doubt in her ability to continue. She certainly still believes she can. In a recent interview, she was wonderfully matter of fact about her situation: “I love playing tennis…and I’m pretty good at it still, so until I feel that I’m not, then I’ll be, like, okay.”
To some extent, we cannot underestimate this. Her passion, determination and drive have been fundamental to her career. She has continually faced adversity and underrepresentation. In a recent interview with British Vogue she highlighted how, throughout her career, she has been ‘underpaid and undervalued’. It is her love of her sport that has fuelled her through this.
Nevertheless, from a spectator’s point of view, one can’t hope but think there may be a little more to it. Unlike the men’s game, the WTA is filled with young new talent. Naomi Osaka, who beat Williams in the controversy-filled 2018 US Open final and won this year’s tournament, is 22 and Iga Swiatek, the first Polish grand-slam winner in history, is just 19. How then is Serena supposed to keep up with this youth, particular as they enter their prime?
Fitness is surely the only solution to that elusive, record equalling, 24th Grand Slam title. Her power has always been the strongest part of her game. Her shot strength and physicality has dominated her opponents consistently. It feels crude to put it so simple, but maintaining this power is key. Focusing on what, to some extent (especially regarding the criticism she has continually faced regarding her physique), is what made Serena Williams who she is today. The difficulty is she now has to work twice as hard as her opponents.
More importantly than fitness, determination or what could still be that Hollywood ending, we must cherish and revere the greatness that is Serena Williams. An emblem of excellence, a champion of equal rights, an ambassador for tennis and a role model for all, she is surely what we should all be striving for. Even if we have never picked up a tennis racket. From a 4-year-old playing on courts with no net in Compton (chosen by Williams’ farther and coach to expose his daughters to life if you did not work hard), to global star, she is a true winner both on and off the court. And we must treasure this no matter what the future holds.
All of that said, would it be too much to ask for her to win just one more? We can only hope.