With her seventh title at the Sony Open in Miami now the latest on the long list of tennis accolades that Serena Williams can lay claim to, the women’s world number one tennis player has once again proved her enduring talent in a game she has now been playing for over 14 years. Given the average length of a career in the world of female tennis this long-lasting presence, which shows little sign of diminishing despite her 32 years, is reason enough to classify her as the most successful female tennis player the game has ever seen. No wonder then, that Williams has such a big smile on her face as she shows her story is still shining with success over a decade after she first battled onto the court of the tennis world in the 1990’s.
Recently crowned the Player of the Year in 2013 by the Women’s Tennis Association, she also gained the number one place in ATP World rankings for the sixth time in her career in February of the same year and currently holds the same ranking in the present. This recent ascension to the top spot makes her the oldest female world number one in history – just one of a few records this inimitable woman has broken during the span of her impressive tennis career. She is the only female player to have won more than 50 million dollars’ worth of prize money, and is the most recent player, male or female, to have achieved all four Grand Slam Singles titles at one time, in 2002-2003.
Yet it is not just her time at the top which has singled her out as an unusual example in the tennis world. Williams is a player who embodies the word different and takes people’s expectations the way she takes a return of serve – with blistering ferocity and an unprecedented ability to smack them right out of her way. The humble beginnings of her and sister, Venus, in Compton California, practicing under the diligent and somewhat eccentric eye of their father, is well documented, as is their fathers long-held belief that his daughters would one day be two of the top tennis players in the world. Rarely has a parent been gifted with such accurate foresight. . .
She is one of the first black female tennis players to break into the profession successfully and remains, with her sister Venus, one of the very few active in the sport today. Tennis has traditionally been dominated by upper middle class white people with a penchant for decadent desserts of strawberries and cream, straw boaters and needlessly strict all white dress codes. So with the appearance and finals triumph in the 1999 US Open of a young African-American woman hailing from a background quite different to that of the “regular crowd”, there were rumblings of racial intolerance and amazement. The young Williams took them easily in her stride however, and relied mainly on her brilliant performances on court to prove them wrong, and with her success still shining as brightly now as it did in those formative years, more than a few people have been forced to eat their words about this female powerhouse.
As a woman she also provides some interesting examples in comparison to most of her other high-ranking counterparts. With a body shape that can only be described as muscular and toned, her size has often been on the receiving end of much criticism or dissection. Accusations of drug use have also reared their ugly head at certain points none of which have any real basis in truth. However, Williams has shown that women do not require a certain body shape to fit into either sport or fashion. While the majority of women on the tennis court are tall, lean and fair, she is once again a departure from the norm. Her interesting choice of outfits have often resulted in more discussion than her playing success, and her weight has been subject to comments regarding her readiness in terms of match fitness.
Yet Williams has shown remarkable resilience in terms of being able to repeatedly climb back up the rankings after injury, health issues or breaks of any other nature. Every time critics have written her off or considered her past her peak, she comes back and proves them wrong by winning yet another major title. There have been many women who have come and gone within the game, challenged Williams successfully once or twice, but then ultimately been unable to sustain their efforts against this titan on the court. Even her rivalry with her sister Venus is no longer a close contest of any kind with as out of the 21 matches they have played, Serena has won 14. Other big names including, Sharapova, Azarenka, Clijsters, have all won against her at various points but Sharapova has not managed to take a set from Williams since 2008 and even Azarenka, who has the best record against the American, was flattened by her in the final set of the US Open in 2013.
So with her cherished victory on home turf in Miami on Saturday, Williams showed that the story of her career is far from over and is still shining with success even after all this time. While giggling on the podium with the runner-up Li Na, she took pride in the fact that the top two seeds in the women’s game were both in their thirties, stating that it showed it was possible to “still shine at any age”. While many have disliked the style of play she has come to personify in the women’s game, there is no doubting that she revolutionized tennis for female players and is possibly the only woman to ever reach a level similar to the mens tennis standard. Williams is unconventional in the world of tennis for reasons that extend beyond her uncontested dominance of the game. However, it is this fact which should serve as the main illustration of how impressive this woman is as a player and the reason the legacy of Serena Williams will probably continue to have an impact on the tennis world long after her story has ended.
Commentary by Rhona Scullion