Overwhelming power, phenomenal athleticism and an undeniable star quality have defined Serena Williams’ career. Currently on hiatus to have her first child, her return to the court is already highly anticipated.
So, what can we expect from this world-great when she makes her big return, and how did she get to where she is today?
Who Is She?
Born in 1981 in Michigan, Serena Williams’ career started at the age of three. It should come as a surprise that Serena came to the sport without any hint of professional pedigree in her family. A famous (semi-apocryphal) story touted by her father is that after he saw a tennis match while channel surfing, he witnessed the winner being presented with a $40,000 cheque. He decided on the spot that his daughters Venus and Serena would be tennis players – going on to predict that his children would eventually against each other at Wimbledon. That $40,000 cheque pales in the shadow of the $100m (and counting) of prize money that the two sisters would go on to claim in their career.
The family soon moved to Compton and Serena started her training on poorly maintained, potholed courts. Despite a lack of quality equipment, before long, William’s natural ability made itself known – prompting the family to move to Florida in 1991 where Serena started to compete. With a hunger outstripping her age, the young player was continuously turned away from competing as wildcard due to her age. However, four years of hard-earned lessons saw her performance skyrocket – improving from a worldwide 304th to 99th in the women’s world rankings within the space of twelve months.
Champing at the bit to play professionally, this ascent through the tables dovetailed with a win at the U.S. Open at only 18 years of age, making her the first African-American woman to take the title and securing a $12m advertising deal with Puma – all before she had even graduated from High School. Her full-fledged professional career saw her swing from success to success. The 2002-03 season saw her secure what is now called a ‘Serena Slam’, when she held the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open titles simultaneously. Even her later career had her executing ground-breaking work, with 2012 seeing her sweep the French Open to defeat the much younger Agnieszka Radwanska; securing a fifth Wimbledon title before going on to attend the summer Olympics in the same year and crush Maria Sharapova to take gold.
But how has she managed to so totally managed to dominate the sport?
This is largely thanks to her aggressive baseline play that focuses on pushing herself and her opponent, often teetering into brinksmanship – albeit one backed-up by a shattering forehand and backhand. Williams’ dominant playing style has seen her capture a loyal audience by always guaranteeing an explosive match that defies forgone conclusions. The American has made a career out of prising victory from the jaws of defeat, famously doing so in the 2015 French Open and 2015 Wimbledon Championships, whilst keeping a cool, accurate head paired with powerful play. Packing her signature searingly accurate serve, she favours clay but has excelled on all surfaces.
This has led to her securing an astonishing career-wide 39 grand slam titles – 14 of which included her work playing women’s doubles in an unbeaten team with her equally talented sister Venus. Their pairing has almost single-handedly revolutionised the women’s tour with their combination of raw power and staying ability allowing them to outlast or overpower the opposition.
But their rivalry is as famous as what they accomplished together.
The pair have faced off with each other in finals nine times, including the 2001 U.S. Open and a famous stretch of back-to-back finals between 2002 03. The better player in their youth, Venus is the one player able to act as a balance against her sister’s power and prowess, having spent her entire life training with her and getting to know her game.
However, such a career will never be without incident. In 2003, a knee injury and subsequent surgery threatened to derail her playing, a blow compounded by the horrendous shock of losing her half-sister Yetunder. The discovery of a blood clot in her lung in 2011 saw her undergo surgery to remove a haematoma and struggle to manage a diagnosis of Sjögren’s Syndrome, an auto-immune disease that adversely affects energy levels.
Despite these knocks, her career has had incredible longevity with Serena now entering the tail end of her professional life. Both Venus and Serena are now the two oldest players in the worldwide top twenty by a significant margin. Currently on hiatus, Williams is waiting to deliver her first child, but still taking time to play at least one match a week. So, when she returns to the game, she will be determined to show the world that she still has what it takes.
London 2012: Held in her professional prime, Williams stepped up and eviscerated an overpowered Maria Sharapova to take the final in a 6-0, 6-1 belter in adverse conditions.
Beijing Olympics: Playing alongside Venus in the women’s doubles, the Williams sisters faced down the might of Spain who were fielding Anabel Medina and Ruano Pascual. In another Olympic rout, the pair sealed her victory by winning 6-2, 6-0.
Wimbledon 2016: Facing off against Angelique Kerber to equal Steffi Graf’s winning record, this tournament saw Serena take her seventh Wimbledon title 7-5, 6-3 – counteracting a recent losing streak.
What makes her a legend?
Unmatched in game: Simply, her playing style and athleticism dismantles her opponents. As the owner of ‘the best serve in women’s tennis’, the intimidation factor of facing a potential ace from Serena is enough to make any player drop a shot. With a capacity for fearless play, Williams couples the ability to reign in her power with fierce tactical nous, and a forehand that lets her enjoy extreme efficiency and accuracy. This helps minimise her footwork and compliment her often forgotten ‘hustle’ and tenacious defensive play.
Genuine role model: Despite experiencing racism and sexism throughout her career, Williams simply does not back down, famously telling an entire crowd ‘don’t try me’ when facing abuse from the crowd backing her opponent at India Wells in 2001. She is also a noted philanthropist, having founded the Serena Williams and Williams Sisters funds and constructed schools in Kenya, Jamaica, and her former hometown of Compton.
Will to win: Since switching to coach Patrick Mouratoglou in 2012, Williams has shifted to from an emphasis on ‘mere’ excellence to numbers and metrics. All in aid of making sure that she is not only winning well, but winning consistently. She also possesses one of the intangible qualities that leaves older players – alertness and an uncanny ability to feel out winning opportunities in the game. And, let’s not forget she was three months pregnant when she took Wimbledon in 2016!