During the on-court funeral they held for her after she’d won her first match at this year’s U.S. Open, you could see bemusement on Serena Williams’s face. It was becoming clear to her in real time just how little anyone believed in her anymore.
Later, searching around for some grand, summary statement, someone asked her what “questions” she had answered for herself.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” Williams said. “I don’t think I had any questions.”
After 25 years spent making an argument that she is the emblematic American athlete of her time, why would she?
Williams didn’t answer questions. She posed them.
How unlikely a figure could you imagine dominating the patrician sport of tennis? How dominant a force could a female athlete become in the 21st century? How blurry can you make the line between sportsperson and celebrity?
After putting those inquiries out into the ether, Williams answered them all. You could have a rational argument about who is the greatest women’s tennis player in history. You cannot argue who among them was the biggest deal. Williams pushed the sport to places it had never considered going.
After years on top of the headlines (if not, of late, the rankings) it’s over. Williams’s run through her final tournament was snuffed out late on Friday night.
Just as everyone had begun to convince themselves she was destined to win it all, she hit a wall in the form of Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic.
Freed to believe for the first time, the crowd tightened up. It was close through the first set and looked like it was tilting in Williams’s favour. But she lost the last four games. That was her chance.
It wasn’t that Williams was poor – she was intermittently excellent. It was that Tomjlanovic refused to cave to public demand. She played Williams straight up.
Finally facing someone who wouldn’t be cowed by the crowd, Williams collapsed. She hung on through two sets. But in the third, she faded badly.
The match ended 7-5, 6-7, 6-1 for Tomljanovic.
Failing to progress beyond the third round is Williams’s worst result in a U.S. Open since her first attempt back in 1998. More than half of the women’s players in this year’s tournament were not yet born at the time.
A farewell this momentous deserved something more grand, but it doesn’t diminish the accomplishments. Williams’s tennis legacy was cemented a decade ago when she was reeling off four Grand Slam victories in a row – again.
At her best, she was one of those rare athletes who win contests just by showing up. We could spend the rest of this column reeling off statistics and superlatives. But the numbers were only a part of Williams’s greatness.
There is an understandable tendency in these moments to look back. How’d she do it? What did it mean? What have we learned?
Those aren’t questions about her, so much as ourselves. Valorizing a great competitor as they leave is a way for a culture to celebrate itself. We were there. We saw history. Also, she won a few things. The unstated implication is that she couldn’t have done it without us.
That’s why people get so worked up when a legend retires. You grew up with this stranger. They were as familiar to you as a friend. You remember them young and now they’re old. So where does that leave you?
It is especially fraught in the United States of right now. That country doesn’t have many heroes they can all agree on any more. Owing to force of personality and length of service, Williams was one of them. Her countrymen and women may not have liked every single thing about her, but she personified the American dream. People of every political stripe could agree on that much.
That would explain the frothing reaction to her from the crowds over the past few days at Flushing Meadows. Nobody wants to see one of their favourites go, but these audiences seemed panicked by the idea.
Après her brings them one touchstone closer to the déluge.
If professional tennis had its way, they would clone her immediately. Find a new star that is just like her, only 20 years younger.
That’s not possible. A core element of Williams’s appeal was that you knew you were watching an original. Even her sister, nearly her equal in on-court ability, had none of the charisma. There is no replicating what she offered.
One example – the 1999 U.S. Open. Williams, then 17, was just starting out. Her father felt the need to act as her carnival barker. One of his exaggerations – guaranteeing that his daughters would meet in the final – caught the attention of Martina Hingis, then world No. 1.
“They always have a big mouth,” Hingis said.
The “they” was unfair. The two sisters hadn’t said anything.
Williams’s response when asked about Hingis’s broadside: “I guess it has a little bit to do with not having a formal education.”
You’re not going to find another teenager who has best-of-all-time potential and can launch nuclear-tipped zingers like that one.
Even the best tend to be remembered for one thing – Jimmy Conners’s fist pumps, Steffi Graf’s steeliness, John McEnroe’s eruptions. It’s a testament to Williams’s influence that she’ll be remembered for about a million things – her unlikely and then her exceedingly likely wins, her celebrations, her meltdowns, her friendships, her feuds, her tribulations, her magazine covers, her epic interviews, her face on a billboard anywhere from Toledo to Tokyo. She was somehow ubiquitous, yet always managing to reinvent herself.
Some very famous people become a single name in the public consciousness. Williams’s became a vast collection of small memories connected to an image of athletic perfection, all of it connected to a real, often very relatable person.
It’s possible a career like hers may happen again. But never in the way she did it.