Seven years ago, as Serena Williams continued to consolidate her career records and her claims as the greatest of all time, a reporter asked her to identify the all-time record in her sights. Williams had 19 grand slam titles back then, just past the marker of 18 set by Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. She sighed deeply, but she was smiling: “Stefanie Graf has it, she has ,” she said, without hesitation. “It’s there, I can see it, just because you can see it doesn’t mean you can reach it.”
Williams will play out the final tournaments of her career in the coming weeks after announcing in Vogue on Tuesday her imminent retirement at 40 and, for the record, she did achieve the ultimate goal she had set for herself then. At the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant with her daughter, Alexis Olympia, Williams surpassed Graf to secure the Open-era record of a 23rd grand slam title.
But then the narrative shifted. Even though the Open era of professional tennis has long been the important marker of the sport’s records, the 24 grand slam titles won by Margaret Court came into view. It was circulated by pundits and fans, and Williams eventually bought into it, legitimising it. In her Vogue essay on Tuesday, she was honest about her attempts to match Court’s grand slam count.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want that record,” Williams wrote. “Obviously I do. But day to day, I’m really not thinking about her. If I’m in a grand slam final, then yes, I am thinking about that record. Maybe I thought about it too much, and that didn’t help. The way I see it, I should have had 30-plus grand slams.”
What matters is that over her 27‑year career, Williams set the marker that matters for all who follow her, no asterisks needed. She reached a level of tennis that has never been seen in the women’s game and she leaves behind a remarkable career.
It began with the turbulence of teenage success, a US Open champion at 17 in 1999, then the two and a half years it took for her to win a second. She pieced together one of the greatest years in history, pushing the sport to a level that had never been seen between 2002 and 2003 along with her sister, Venus. She won four grand slam titles in a row, the Serena Slam, beating Venus in each final. Her doubles partnership with her sister – they compiled an outlandish 14-0 record in grand slam finals despite rarely playing – continued to blossom.
Considering the number of setbacks that Williams has been forced to reckon with because of injury, depression and life‑threatening illness, her longevity is hard to believe. She arrived at the Australian Open in 2007 ranked No 81 as pundits warned she was wasting her talent; she ended it by demolishing Maria Sharapova in the final. Four years later, she recovered from her first bout of pulmonary embolisms and returned to enjoy the best days of her career, winning 10 more grand slam titles after 30.
Even the most recent years of her career, the ones defined by her failure to match Court’s grand slam title count, still add to her legacy. After giving birth at the age of 36, she returned and eventually compiled a run of four grand slam finals in six events late in her 30s.
Earlier in her career, Williams’ outside interests were used often as a point of criticism compared to the devotion of her rivals. Now she has outlasted most of her contemporaries by decades. Martina Hingis retired for the first time in 2002, Justine Henin first tapped out in 2007. Williams burned bright so early in her career yet her passion, love and healthy perspective towards the sport has only grown.
Not only did Venus and Serena dominate the sport, they changed it. Their combination of power, athleticism, serving, speed and the ability to harness it on court shook the women’s game to its core, forcing every women’s competitor to get themselves to the gym.
Less credited are Serena Williams’s other defining qualities; her intelligence, her court sense, her ability to problem-solve under suffocating pressure and find a solution on the court. Today, there are players who can demolish the ball as hard as her, others who have built themselves into supreme athletes and some who are extremely smart on the court. Nobody else can do it all.
Even though Williams hasn’t played much in recent years, reminders of her legacy are constant. They are present with every open‑stance backhand winner crushed from far behind the baseline by the many dynamic, talented players competing today, but also in more meaningful ways.
On Monday afternoon at the National Bank Open, Williams stepped on to the court. From the crowd, Naomi Osaka posted a video on social media as she watched on, a Serena fan until the very end. Williams’s success has spawned a new generation of tennis players who have been vocal and clear about her influence as they have established themselves at the top of the sport. They will carry it on.