The “evolution” of Serena Williams

Anusha Srivastava and Tanya Ganesh

   37 Grand Slam titles, 319 weeks at world no. 1, and 4 Olympic golds later, Serena Williams announced, on August 9, 2022, the most dreaded

word of any athlete’s career—retirement. Becoming a pro at the age of 14, Williams sustained one of the most successful professional tennis careers for over 27 years. Along the way, she topped the competitive tennis world, winning the most Grand Slam titles in the Open Era, male or female, with 858 tour victories, 73 singles titles, and 14 Major doubles titles with her sister, Venus Williams.  

   While dominating the game, the sisters have battled both racism and sexism throughout their careers, with tennis having a history of being a predominantly white male sport. They have broken gender norms, stereotypes, and prejudices that were placed against them early in their career, while widening opportunities for the upcoming generations. Williams has used her sporting success not only to change the game technically, with her unique aggressive swing volleys and open stance backhands, but also societally, visiting schools and tennis academies across the country to inspire young girls.

   Natalie Frekko ‘24, member of the Girls    Varsity Tennis team, explained that “Serena was one of the first players I truly looked up to…she never backed down and was one of the first female players to really start taking things aggressively on the rise, ending points fast, and hitting the lines,” being a playing style that Williams is known for. “She was more than just a great tennis player. She allowed me to find the real confidence and grace of women in sports.”

   Williams has changed the world beyond just tennis, making herself a powerful voice for women, through her success and platform in philanthropy and business. Off the court, her fashion brand, SERENA, celebrates body positivity and female empowerment. In 2019, she launched her own venture capital firm that focused on investing in companies that embrace diverse leadership, opportunity, and creativity. Williams has traveled the world as a Goodwill Ambassador of 2011, working to provide education to vulnerable children through the UNICEF Schools for Africa initiative. and has advocated for affordable, quality healthcare for mothers and newborns through the #EveryChildAlive campaign. Opening up about her own hardships with childbirth and postpartum depression, Williams has used her voice to support and sympathize with the community. 

   Dr. Sarah Taylor, LFA’s very own former tennis pro and AP Psychology teacher, said, “She made us change our views. She punctures holes in cultural and gender stereotypes… She made people accept this new image that women don’t have to be pretty when they play; they were allowed to be loud, show aggression, and sweat.”

   All through Williams’ life, her focus on pushing herself, proving everyone wrong, and of course, winning, was evident. However, as she grew older, these passions gradually shifted into building a stable family with her husband, Alexis Ohanian. Naturally, she worked towards this goal and announced her pregnancy in early–mid 2017. In September, she gave birth to Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. One would think the road ends here, but that is far from the case for Serena Williams. At the beginning of her pregnancy, she won her 23rd Grand Slam, her last major. However, after 5 years of balancing being a mom and professional athlete, she has decided to retire and focus on expanding her family.

   Williams’ daughter, Olympia, is one of the biggest and best reasons that she wanted to retire. For many years, Olympia had expressed her desire to be a big sister to her mom. Being one of five sisters, Williams understood wanting this dynamic. Having this support system growing up is what ultimately got her to this impactful and prosperous career that took the world by storm. As William stated in her closing statements after her final match, “I wouldn’t be Serena if there wasn’t Venus.”

   In Williams’ final major, the U.S. Open, she pushed herself to solidify the name that she has earned for herself, showing that she will always be the same Serena Williams that stepped on the court so many years ago, and grew to be one of the sport’s biggest legends.

   As Taylor said, “Even at the age of 40, you would have to beat Serena 30 times to truly defeat her. She always had the unique athleticism and courage to keep swinging even when she was down… No one can compare to the intensity that Serena played with.” 

   This admirable and distinct playing style transferred to her grueling third-round match against the Australian player, Ajla Tomljanović. Although Williams came up short in the deciding third set, her efforts were met with a standing ovation, praise from other tennis legends, and even from her opponent, for gracing the courts with over 25 years of excellence. In the stadium sat fans from all over the world, long time friend Tiger Woods among the other cheering celebrities, and most importantly, her family. As a tribute, Olympia was seen in the front rows of the stands, cheering Mom on, wearing the sentimental white beads that Williams wore in her first Major Title win.

    In an Adidas’ photoshoot from 1998, Serena stood beside her sister, white beads in hair, when the world was yet to see what this 16 year old from Compton, California, would become today. Being new to fame, this look had brought a lot of controversy and discomfort in what was the traditional tennis crowd at the time. Venus responded, “When @serenawilliams and I wore our iconic beads, we didn’t wear them to be different, we wore them because they were a part of our heritage.” These white beads are where it first started back in 1999, at the U.S. Open: her first Grand Slam title at the age of 17. Cut to now, 23 years later, her daughter pays a homage to Mom, sitting courtside through the end of this wild ride.

   In Williams’ retirement announcement with Vogue, she said that she made the decision knowing that, “…thanks to opportunities afforded to me, women athletes feel that they can be themselves on the court. They can play with aggression and pump their fists. They can be strong yet beautiful. They can wear what they want and say what they want and kick butt and be proud of it all.”

   Serena Williams is an athlete, mother, wife, friend, and to many, she is a role model that has and will continue to inspire new generations to fill her shoes. She inspires those on and off the tennis court through her perseverance, strength, and grace.  The game of tennis is forever altered by Serena Willaims.