Photo: Getty
  /  09.21.2022

Even if you never watched a tennis match before in your life, you were glued to this year’s U.S. Open – the women’s singles and doubles matches to be exact. Eyes were fixated on the greatness that is Serena Williams during her proclaimed swan song, and she did not disappoint. A million silent camera shutters flickered with every move she made, from entrance to exit. From the Swarovski crystals sprinkled throughout her mane down to the custom NikeCourt Flare 2s that bared hundreds of hand-set diamonds, she was excellence personified. With each serve, backhand, and break point, we watched with bated breath, grateful to see the GOAT in action. Every homage, monologue, and cut to Williams’ baby girl Alexis Olympia Ohanian, Jr., her family, and legions of fans — including some of the world’s biggest stars — just didn’t seem like quite enough for an icon who has continued to leave an indelible mark on the tennis court and beyond.

The sight of little 5-year-old Olympia was both a nod to times past and a glimpse into the future and what’s to come. Matching her mom’s attire, Olympia donned the distinctive white beads popularized by her mother and aunt, Venus Williams, when they burst onto the tennis scene and took it by storm. But let’s not stop there. Whether or not she chooses to follow in her family’s footsteps, the most important thing is that she CAN. It is no longer unheard of for Black women to pick up a racket and ascend to the highest levels of the sport. It may be a while before we’re cheering for Olympia in the U.S. Open, Wimbledon, or the Olympics, but in the meantime, there is a new school of female tennis stars that Williams has paved the way for.

Williams walked so that athletes like Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff, and Sloane Stephens could soar. Actually, “walk” might not be the best term to use in this situation. Suggesting that she did anything short of dominating seems like an insult, but you get the drift. Osaka put it mildly when she said that the 23-time Grand Slam champion “introduced people that have never heard of tennis into the sport.” Ahead of this year’s U.S. Open, she told ESPN, “I think I’m a product of what she’s done. I wouldn’t be here without Serena, Venus, her whole family. I’m very thankful to her. I also was trying to figure out how to sum it into words. I honestly think that she’s the biggest force in the sport.” Out of the four times that she’s looked across the net at Williams, Osaka has emerged as the victor three times – most notably in 2018 when she won the U.S. Open final.

During the trophy ceremony, the then-20-year-old cried as boos rang out from the crowd, telling them, “I’m sorry it had to end like this.” By “like this,” she was referring to Williams being penalized a game after an argument with the chair umpire who said she was “receiving coaching.” Osaka went on to win the final in straight sets in front of an audience that she knew wanted a different outcome. Like the queen that she is, Williams remained graceful toward her competitor, putting her arm around the young champion and even telling the crowd to stop booing. However, the fallout was a mixed bag. There was the racist caricature by Australian cartoonist Mark Knight. Then, there was an outpouring of support from people like Billie Jean King, who admonished the double standard when it comes to women in sports. “When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ and there are no repercussions,” tweeted the 39-time Grand Slam champion.

It’s that kind of intense passion — and the fearlessness to exhibit it — that puts Williams in another stratosphere. There was, and is, no one like her. The difference between her and her peers is not limited to race. Never before had the sport seen such power, speed, force, and individuality – and from a woman. Sporting a 128.6 mph serve, faster than several male counterparts, lent to her dominance. Only her older sister, Venus, and German player Sabine Lisicki have delivered faster first serves. Then there’s the body. With her muscular and curvy stature, Williams stood out like a sore thumb. Rather than try to camouflage what God gave her, she chose instead to use her appearance as a walking, volleying billboard for creativity and self-expression. Her fits were just as iconic as her serve. Vogue editor Gabriella Karefa-Johnson called her on-court style a “visual manifestation of her fun, her energy, and her barrier-breaking mentality.” Williams also had a close working relationship with late designer Virgil Abloh and enjoys a long-time friendship with Vogue’s Anna Wintour, becoming the first Black female athlete to appear on the magazine’s cover in 2012. The iconic tennis champ has since gone on to grace the cover of the “fashion bible” more than any other athlete. In addition to the catsuits, tutus, and other jaw-dropping looks, the Compton native also sports a sick shoe game and, clearly, a deep involvement in the fashion world.

Since signing a five-year, $40 million deal with Nike back in 2004, the company has endorsed Williams ever since, creating custom kicks and clothing. That same year, she also launched Aneres, her designer apparel line. A few years later, she created Signature Statement, a collection of handbags and jewelry for HSN, which she has presented a number of times at New York Fashion Week. On top of her entertainment ventures and athletic ownership investments, Serena is also a vocal social justice activist and philanthropist. The only time this superwoman has ever stayed within the lines is on the tennis court. Her boundless achievements are what young phenom Gauff admires. “I feel like Serena taught me that from watching her — she never settled for less. I can’t remember a moment in her career or life that she settled for less,” she said.

Gauff, an Atlanta native, has a background that most closely resembles the Williams sisters rather than Osaka. She first took an interest in the sport at the tender age of four. She went on to become the youngest player ever to reach the U.S. Open girls’ final when she was only 13 years old. Two years later, Gauff became the youngest qualifier ever at Wimbledon, where she defeated Venus at the age of 15. Despite growing up in the predominately white Florida elite tennis circuit, Williams’ success assured Gauff that anything was within reach.

“Growing up, I never thought that I was different because the No. 1 player in the world was somebody who looked like me,” she revealed. “I think that’s the biggest thing that I can take from what I’ve learned from Serena,” the 18-year-old said at this year’s U.S. Open media day. Taking another page from the four-time Olympic gold medalist’s playbook, the precocious teen released her first signature shoe with New Balance in August. The NB Coco CG1 took two years to develop and makes Gauff the only active tennis player other than Roger Federer with signature footwear. Just like her idol, she was hands-on throughout the whole process which started back in 2018. She told Forbes, “I feel like I’m learning every day and trying to stay in the moment for every detail. I do feel I’ve brought some knowledge, too. I’ve seen New Balance evolve so much in my short time, and I’m glad they’re so open to my input and hearing my generation’s interests.”

For all that Serena Williams has done to inspire so many around the world, we must not overlook the influence she has right under her own roof. Her daughter, Olympia, became the youngest owner of a professional sports team at the age of 2. Back in 2020, the young mogul-in-the-making became part-owner of the National Women’s Soccer League’s Angel City. Their bond is iron-clad and wherever Williams is, Olympia is sure to be found close by – often twinning with her mother in mini-me designs. As far as her legacy, the GOAT is asked about it a lot. In her essay published in Vogue, she said, “I’d like to think 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.” Sounds like a strong legacy to me — with or without a racket in your hand.

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