The disappointment of the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium when Serena Williams netted her last forehand didn’t last long.
Soon, rousing applause rang out in the stadium for a woman who added a fourth hour to Ajla Tomljanovic in her US Open third-round match and whose brilliance spanned more than a quarter of a century.
She and her sister Venus changed the game and the outlook on life for many – whether they dreamed of a professional tennis career or just a better, fairer future for themselves and their families.
Be yourself was the message. Women, especially colored ones, don’t need to hide their feelings or their desperate desire to succeed. Many noses were dislocated in the process, but corrective surgery was long overdue.
Aside from Muhammad Ali and maybe Billie Jean King, has any athlete made a bigger impact on society than Serena Williams? And it may just be getting started.
Your achievements are unparalleled. Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles was always a false target, as the phenomenally successful Australian won 13 of those titles when professionals were banned from entering. However, the goal was incredibly motivating, helping a 30-something Williams win more than half the Slams she competed in between Wimbledon 2012 and the Australian Open 2017.
No one else has been able to accumulate Grand Slam singles titles over an 18-year period. Twice, 12 years apart, Williams won all four in a row. The first “Serena Slam” was completed at the Australian Open in 2003, securing against Venus over four consecutive finals. The sister who, in Serena’s words, was “bigger, prettier, faster and sportier”. The sister who inspired the glowing newspaper articles and was originally the focus of her father Richard. The sister whose bed she sometimes had to share as a child, but from whom she learned so much and took so much of her drive with her.
Williams won a total of 23 Grand Slam singles titles, although in her mid-20s she won just two in five years. During what were often the best years of a player’s career, Williams tried to come to terms with the death of her sister Yetunde in a drive-by shooting in Compton in September 2003.
In her 2009 autobiography Queen of the Court, she talks about slipping into depression. “There was an aching sadness, an all-encompassing weariness, a sudden disinterest in the world around me — especially tennis,” she wrote.
It wasn’t until five years after her sister’s death that she returned to the top of the world rankings.
The arrival of Serena and Venus accelerated the spread of power in women’s football. Monica Seles and Lindsay Davenport had gotten the ball rolling, but that kind of aggressive hitting had never been seen before.
Former world number six Chanda Rubin recalls a match she played with Serena in Los Angeles in 2002.
“She took a shot and it was the hardest forehand I’ve ever seen go by,” she says.
“I didn’t even get a chance to react to it and move, and I had played Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati.
“It was just pure power. And from zero to 60. This look never left me, even though I won this match.”
Williams also owns arguably the biggest serve of all time. It offers power, placement, rhythm, and accuracy, and is harder to read than War and Peace.
As both a woman and a woman of color, Williams’ accomplishments and attitude have had a dizzying impact on so many others.
“Before Serena came along, there wasn’t really an icon in the sport who looked like me,” Coco Gauff said in New York last week.
“Growing up I never thought I was different because the number one player in the world was someone who looked like me.
“Sometimes as a woman, a black woman in the world, you settle for less. She has never settled for less.”
Don’t forget the Grand Slam title she won in Melbourne when she was eight weeks pregnant and the four Grand Slam finals she later reached as a mother in her late 30s. Don’t forget the postnatal depression and two pulmonary embolisms that threatened her life.
Williams knows all too well that black women are far more likely to die in childbirth and addressed the matter in a 2018 BBC interview.
“Doctors don’t listen to us, to be honest,” she told me.
“There are some things that we are genetically predisposed to do that some people are not. So knowing that it’s heartbreaking when we go in or that some doctors don’t care that much about us.”
Williams has spoken out on sensitive issues with growing confidence as her career has progressed. She chose to return to Indian Wells in 2015, where she had experienced an “undercurrent of racism” 14 years earlier before the singles final against Kim Clijsters.
She cited former South African President Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, which was a key influence on her decision to return.
“I look forward to stepping out and letting the whole world know that it doesn’t matter what you’ve experienced – you can just come out and be strong and say I will still be the best person I can be.” she said in March in California.
Serena Williams isn’t a modern day saint, of course. Arthur Ashe Stadium has witnessed her six US Open titles but also a spiteful behavior towards officials for which she showed little remorse.
But I think she’s the most remarkable athlete of the last 40 years.
The pain she feels as she leaves the stage will be shared by many in all corners of the world.