Towards the end of the film King Richard, the on-screen Serena Williams is caught staring at the centre court of a tournament by Will Smith, portraying Richard Williams. A brief conversation ensues when finally Smith says, “You’re gonna be the best there ever was. You’re gonna be the greatest of all time.”

‘Greatest of All Time.’

The G.O.A.T debate has been raging over the past few years, as Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer engaged in a race for the most singles Grand Slam titles in the Open Era. It’s only in a few small pockets of the social media world where Williams, a winner of 23 singles Majors – more than any of the Big 3 of men’s tennis – is ever promoted in the argument.

She admitted in an interview with British Vogue in 2020 that she had been “undervalued, underpaid” throughout her career. Yet now as the US Open 2022 beckons, Williams, just under a month shy of turning 41, will be in the spotlight.

She’ll be a celebrated figure at Flushing Meadows as she competes in what is set to be the last Major in her long, decorated career. Yet for someone who first started playing when she was barely 18 months old, the word ‘retirement’ does not come to mind.

“I have never liked the word retirement. It doesn’t feel like a modern word to me,” she wrote in an article for Vogue, where she announced – albeit without putting a set date – that she will be hanging up the racquet.

“I’ve been thinking of this as a transition, but I want to be sensitive about how I use that word, which means something very specific and important to a community of people. Maybe the best word to describe what I’m up to is evolution. I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me.”

Serena Williams announces retirement plans, says ‘countdown has begun’

For nearly four decades, tennis was the important thing. Hers is a storied career peppered with trophies and accolades. But it’s also a career riddled with unjust criticism and controversy at some stages. All stemming from the fact that Serena and elder sister Venus were different to what had largely been a norm in the tennis world.

Tennis was a predominantly white sport, played by those from a wealthy background. Women’s singles was dominated by a set of players who swore by the virtues of artistry and grace, and played textbook strokes that kept the purists satisfied.

Into this world entered the Williams sisters looking to upset the balance. They hailed from the poor and crime-ridden streets of Compton, California, but chose to dominate a sport that did not welcome them. They were black players in a white sport. Tall, strong, hair decorated in colourful beads, flashing a big endearing smile, playing with an unconventional open stance, and hitting the ball powerfully from the baseline.

It was a playing style rarely seen in the women’s game, as the Williams sisters bludgeoned their way up the ranks while still in their teens. Venus was the first to reach a Grand Slam final, losing to Martina Hingis in the 1997 US Open.

But Serena managed to out-hit the Swiss in the summit clash two years later. Rather poetically, the racquet Williams used to win her first Grand Slam singles title was from equipment manufacturer Wilson’s ‘hammer’ series.

That was just the start of a new era of dominance in the sport.

Yet there remained silent – and often not so silent and even racist – criticism.

Shamil Tarpischev, the Russian Tennis Federation president in 2014, called Venus and Serena the “Williams brothers.” Just last year, Madrid Open director Ion Tiriac, on Romanian television, referred to Serena’s weight and age and said that if Serena “had a little decency, she would retire.”

Through the noise and anger, she persevered.

“There were so many matches I won because something made me angry or someone counted me out. That drove me. I’ve built a career on channelling anger and negativity and turning it into something good,” she wrote in her recent essay.

And there was plenty of good that came in her career.

In singles, she won 23 Grand Slams. She partnered Venus to win 14 doubles Majors and won two in the mixed doubles. Then there were four gold medals at the Olympic Games, 73 tour titles, and two ‘Serena Slams’ (when she held all four Major titles at the same time) in 2002-’03 and 2014-’15.

Perhaps the only major achievement she’s still to achieve, but something that she may fall agonisingly short of, is matching Margaret Court’s all-time Grand Slam record of 24 singles titles.

Williams won her 23rd Slam at the 2017 Australian Open while being eight-weeks pregnant. After a maternity break, she returned to the tour the following year and reached the finals at two consecutive Wimbledon and US Opens (2018 and 2019) but failed to win a single set.

The all-time record may be elusive, but Williams has made her peace with it.

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want that record. I had my chances after coming back from giving birth,” she added.

“I went from a C-section to a second pulmonary embolism to a Grand Slam final. I played while breastfeeding. I played through postpartum depression. But I didn’t get there. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. I didn’t show up the way I should have or could have. But I showed up 23 times, and that’s fine. Actually, it’s extraordinary. But these days, if I have to choose between building my tennis résumé and building my family, I choose the latter.”

Watch: Serena Williams’ farewell speech at Toronto Masters– ‘I am terrible at goodbyes’

By no means will the impact she had on the tennis world fade into the sunset anytime soon.

In a podcast with her friend Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, an old clip of an 11-year-old Serena Williams is played where she’s asked who she’d like to be if she pursues a career in tennis. The young Williams answered: “I’d like other people to be like me.”

And it’s been that way.

Countless up and coming players have hoped to be the next Serena Williams.

“I grew up watching her,” said French Open finalist Coco Gauff during the Canadian Open a few weeks ago. “That’s the reason why I play tennis and tennis being a predominantly white sport, it definitely helped a lot because I saw somebody who looked like me, dominating the game and it made me believe I could dominate too.”

Even Danka Kovinic, Williams’ first-round opponent at the 2022 US Open, posted on twitter: “What a moment. Looking forward to this,” after the draw ceremony slotted her against the six-time winner of the American Slam.

None though, in the Open Era, have conquered tennis the way Williams has.

Thousands are expected to cram into the Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday, hoping it’s not the last time Serena Williams will take to court in the largest tennis arena in the world but in case it is, they are there. Some will dream she can do it seven more times during the course of the next fortnight and perhaps leave with a record-equalling 24th.

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

“Pressure is privilege.”

In and around the show court in New York – a grand 23 thousand-plus seater – these two quotes are prominent. The first belongs to Arthur Ashe, the first black man to win an Open Era Grand Slam, and a champion of black rights. The second is from Billie Jean King, a 12-time singles Major winner, who has championed equal pay for women and was one of the founding members of the WTA.

Somehow, both quotes sit well with how Williams has played her sport. From the ghetto of Compton, to being the one to beat. She’s the unsung greatest of all time.


The match is scheduled to start at 04:30 hrs IST on Tuesday, August 30, and will be telecast live on the Sony Sports Network and Sony Liv.