It is the end of an era at the US Open this year. Serena Williams, who won the first of her 23 Grand Slams at Flushing Meadows as a teenager in 1999, is playing her final singles tournament just before her 41st birthday. It is her farewell tour, her last dance. “I am very sad,” said Kim Clijsters, who lost to Williams in the third round in 1999. “The last 20 years have been the Serena era and only hers.”
Not only has the American superstar dominated tennis over the last two decades with her power play. The way her fellow players have eulogised about her this week highlights how she has also smashed down barriers in the sport and society.
Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens, Coco Gauff and Leylah Fernandez have all been inspired to pick up a tennis racquet by the first African-American female champion of the Open era. Four-time Grand Slam champion Osaka, whose father is from Haiti, said: “I think that her legacy is really wide to the point where you can’t even describe it in words. She changed the sport so much.
“For me, I think this is the most obvious part, if you look at everyone, that’s our skin colour, clearly we followed her. She’s introduced people that have never heard of tennis into the sport. 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. There’s definitely been a lot of barriers that I’m sure she had to fight to break down. We can now easily go through that because of her.
“I honestly think that she’s the biggest force in the sport. That’s not intentionally trying to make [Roger] Federer or [Rafael] Nadal smaller. I just think she’s the biggest thing that will ever be in the sport.”
Last year’s runner-up Fernandez added: “She’s an icon. She’s a legend. She has done so much for the sport, not only for tennis players, but for women in general. She’s fought for us. She’s done incredible things. It’s a little sad to see her leave the sport.”
Williams announced her “evolution” away from tennis in her Vogue article for the September edition. She won her last Grand Slam singles title at the 2017 Australian Open while eight weeks pregnant with Olimpia and wants to have another child. “I’m turning 41 this month, and something’s got to give,” she explained.
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As a mother, Williams has lost four Grand Slam finals without winning a set and the world No 608 and she has played only five matches – and won only one – since last year’s French Open. She lost the second set to Emma Raducanu 6-0 in her last match in Cincinnati. The six-time champion has kept a low-profile this week with no media interviews and unannounced early morning practice sessions away from the crowds.
But she will be back in the spotlight overnight on the biggest stage in tennis, the 23,771-capacity Arthur Ashe Stadium. Montenegrin world No 80 Danka Kovinic, who beat Raducanu in Melbourne, will be her opponent. Tickets are going for tens of thousands of dollars.
Williams has accepted a wildcard to play in the doubles with her sister Venus but her first-round singles match promises to be an emotionally-charged evening no matter the result. Eurosport analyst John McEnroe said: “Hopefully she’ll enjoy it. Serena is like Roger – she’s not going there to lose in the first round.
“The bottom line is that people are going to be pulling for her big time. She should probably play at night every time as long as she’s in the tournament so it would be nice to see her make some type of nice run.”