Perspective | Serena Williams’ exit was just like her career – a fight to the end – The Washington Post

Perspective |  Serena Williams' exit was just like her career - a fight to the end - The Washington Post

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All the celebrity tributes and voiceover videos were artifices, rubbish, compared to the audience acclaim for Serena Williams, the pure roaring waterfalls of applause that thundered down Arthur Ashe Stadium. It came in full-throated cascades, for the greatest women’s tennis player in history, for the bravura thrust of her game and for the breadth of her now complete reign. Beneath the shouting and stomping were so many feelings they could hardly be expressed as the 40-year-old gave one last turn and wave before walking out.

It was a long, sometimes contentious, multi-hurdle journey from a chippy kid to an all-time champion who radicalized one of the whitest and toughest sports with her presence. She won her first US Open title at the age of 17 in 1999, the start of a modern record 23 Grand Slam titles. She found the bottom of her competitive heart and guts on Friday night when, just three weeks shy of her 41st birthday, she battled with trademark fury for three sets and killed off five match points with a set of huge if tiring cuts at the tennis ball forehand. losing to Ajla Tomljanovic, 7-5, 6-7 (7-4), 6-1, in what was almost certainly her last major championship game. Just two days earlier, she had upset the No. 2 player in the worldAnett Kontaveit.

As Serena Williams proves, retiring from tennis can be complicated

“I tried,” she said simply, later.

No one in the history of the game, perhaps any game, has ever tried harder or longer.

“I mean there are so many things to remember. Like the battle. I’m such a fighter. I don’t know,” she said. “I feel like I really brought something – and bring something – to tennis. The different looks, the fist pumps, the just crazy intensity. Obviously the passion I think is a really good word.”

It was such a complicated career over the course of 27 years that it was difficult to grasp. “Her legacy is really vast, to the point where you can’t even describe it in words,” said Naomi Osaka, her rival and friend.

Her effect could be partially illustrated by two bracketing images. On August 9, Williams announced her impending retirement or “evolving” as she called it in a less painful term, with a majestic pose on the cover of the September issue of Vogue magazine in a royal blue dress with a train. Twenty-four Septembers ago, in Williams’ first year of 1999, the “cover girl” of Vogue that month was Gwyneth Paltrow, a typically thin actress. Williams would redefine female beauty with a new pattern of strength, defying the traditional strictures of tennis, opening it up to more diverse audiences. She has appeared in Vogue four times – the first Black athlete to appear in its pages. It was no small feat that a strong Black athlete turned the glossy magazine into his household organ. Not to mention a showcase for the accessories she so gleefully draped over her muscle, right down to the encrusted diamonds on her boxers.

“I feel grateful that I can have that impact,” she said earlier in the tournament. “I never thought I would have such an impact, ever. I was just a girl trying to play tennis at a time where I could develop this impact and be a voice. It was so authentic because I do what I do. And I just do it authentically [as] me I think people could really relate to that.”

Williams’ career on and off the court was an exploration in power – the massive swing of her strokes was accompanied by a control, a deep precision that allowed her to brush the lines. Through the ebbs and flows of the victories, she was innocent of her towering temper and difficult game and voice and her origins on the hardscrabble, cracked and shelled public courts of Compton, California. “I wouldn’t be who I am if I am. I didn’t go through — and go through — what I went through,” she said at Wimbledon earlier this summer. “I love who I am. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Everything she did “wrong” or out of line with tennis tradition was inevitably magnified, criticized or scrutinized. But instead of being shy about it, she went right ahead and made huge statements, about body image, ideas about what tennis clothing could look like and how loud a woman could compete. Typically, the tennis world imposed subtle pressures on women to keep their ambitions and their voices within a certain range, to suppress. It was Williams who imposed her own pressure on tennis with the power of her competitive personality. She took all the advantages of the tennis world and none of the disadvantages. She avoided exhaustion, disillusionment, the injuries from outplaying that plague youngest champions.

And in the end, she became not only the most enduring champion of the modern era, but also its most respected. Over the past week she has been lionized by Oprah and Queen Latifah, but she has been fueled by a crowd noise of a volume and quality of love that has not been heard for any other champion. Even the longest tennis watchers have not heard such ovations. “This is not tennis noise,” commented Mary Carillo.

The Serena Effect changed every aspect of women’s tennis

Williams could feel the contractions in her chest, she said. Her first-round opponent, Danka Kovinic, said, “At some moments during the match, I couldn’t hear my shots.”

As Williams fought against Tomljanovic, the crescendo rose and rose. In one game in the second set, she forced her opponent to fight for 15 full minutes just to hold her serve. When Williams took that set, she let out a guttural scream of her own, so intense it bent her double.

But in a siege of a final game — one that lasted 22 points — as the match entered its third hour, she alternated her slam dunks and forays to the net, shots that landed like uppercuts, with arm-tiring errors.

The final shot was a tired forehand that clipped the white web tape. And suddenly it was done.

Later, in a court interview, as she thanked her family and friends, she cried in a whirlwind of conflicting emotions. “These are happy tears – I guess,” she said. “I don’t know.”

And then she thanked that crowd that finally learned to appreciate her. “I’m just grateful to everyone who said ‘Go Serena’ in their life because you got me here,” she said.

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