Serena Williams has built a legacy that spans far beyond the realm of her sport. She is a supreme multi-hyphenate: a champion athlete – entrepreneur – fashion mogul – activist – venture capitalist – philanthropist – actor – model – NFL franchise owner – writer – mother. We’ll stop there, but the list could go on.
Serena is an icon and an inspiration to millions of people around the globe. Since her accomplishments could fill multiple books, we’ll stick with one aspect of her enduring legacy:
Her impact on her game – the game of tennis.
Here’s how Serena Williams changed women’s tennis forever.
Serena’s Tennis Style
There’s women’s tennis before the Williams sisters, and women’s tennis after the Williams sisters.
The two were an indomitable force in tennis for decades – both brought a style of play that evolved the game to an entirely new level. As Serena has said, “There’s no Serena without Venus.”
“Power and Grit”
A New York Times article published before Serena’s final US Open appearance in 2022 was titled “Power and Grit That Changed the Game.” Serena’s legacy in a nutshell.
Before the Williams sisters, women’s tennis did have some power hitters, but the sport was generally less aggressive, serves weren’t as fast or forceful, and the court loomed large.
Serena and Venus burst on the scene with a unique combination of power hits and a court-covering velocity. Competitors have said the Williams sisters moved around the court with such athleticism it made the court seem small.
Serena, in particular, is known for one of the most powerful serves anyone had ever seen, for forceful, open-stance ground strokes, explosive court coverage, and an aggressively competitive presence, roaring her way through expert returns. She plays with a relentless, high-risk style exhibiting intimidating mental strength and physical prowess.
And other players followed.
Power is the name of the game now. More players in the WTA regularly hit near 110 mph with their serves. More women players attack the court with fresh physicality and aggressive hits. Aryna Sabalenka, with her Serena-like roar, is one of them. Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff, Karolina Pliskova, Maria Sakkari, and Elena Rybakina are other power servers in the WTA.
The “Serena Slam”
While Serena never won the coveted “Grand Slam” – all four Grand Slam titles in one calendar year – she held all four titles simultaneously twice in her career and had her own “Slam” named after her.
In 2002, Serena won the French Open and then beat Venus in the Wimbledon women’s singles final to rise to world No. 1 for the first time. She went on to win the 2002 US Open and the 2003 Australian Open, claiming all four Grand Slam titles at once – though not in the same calendar year.
Though other players clinched this feat before, it has come to be known as the “Serena Slam.”
Breaking Racial & Gender Boundaries
Perhaps above anything else, Serena’s dominance in a previously white-dominated sport showed Black and Brown women and girls that nothing was impossible for them.
Serena followed in the footsteps of Black players like Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe – the first Black players to break through racial barriers and succeed at tennis’ highest level. Others include Zina Garrison and Yannick Noah, who preceded the Williams sisters.
But the names “Venus and Serena” gripped the world in a completely new way. They became not just tennis stars, but global superstars – cultural icons blazing a new trail in sports, fashion, business, and philanthropy. Like their father Richard Williams always dreamed, they became true multi-hyphenates.
In the tennis world, their enduring, universal impact has changed the face of the sport forever.
Challenging the White, Elitist Roots of Tennis
Jennifer Landsbury, author of “A Spectacular Leap: Black Women Athletes in Twentieth-Century America,” said of the Williams sisters: “The ways that tennis society treats them very much harkens back to the way it has always treated black women. They’re too loud, they’re too powerful, they won’t talk to reporters, all the things that have been there since the beginning.”
In early tennis, white men set the standard for how women should look and play the sport. For over 100 years, white men wrote the rules of tennis – what women players wore and how they played. Meanwhile, Black players were being excluded from the sports’ top clubs almost entirely.
While Serena wasn’t the first Black or female player to push against the boundaries and rules set by those white men, she moved the goals posts on what was possible. She and Venus famously boycotted the Indian Wells Open for 14 years after her father heard racial slurs in the stands.
Championing Black Women
Serena challenged the restrictive tennis mold for women and clapped back at those who thought a female tennis player’s body had to look a specific (and, dare we say it, white) way. She changed the dialogue about body image and was unapologetic about what she wanted. She was ferocious in a world where women were expected to be demure.
As a new mom in the 2018 French Open, she stepped onto the court in a black catsuit, showing off her powerful frame and championing innovative activewear. The suit was specially designed for her post-C-section to support healthy blood flow. While Roland Garros banned the catsuit, Serena won in the end, with most fan and media coverage taking her side.
Throughout her career, Serena has shown the world that their narrow ideas of how women should be – particularly Black women – are just dead wrong.
Today’s tennis world is better because of it. We’re seeing an increasing number of Black junior players, and in summer 2022, 10 of the top 30 Americans in the WTA singles rankings – and three of the top six – were Black women.
Two of the tennis world’s most recent thrilling young stars were Black players: Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff, who credit Serena as the inspiration for their careers.
And the message goes beyond Black women. Tennis today includes people from diverse ethnic backgrounds, bringing more and better play to the sport.
Serena doesn’t just have an explosive career – she also has one of the longest. She started playing tennis at age 4, played her first professional event at age 14, and clinched her first Grand Slam title at age 17. She announced she was “evolving away” from tennis over two decades later and holds the longest span between her first and last titles, from 1999 to 2014.
She is the only player to have won singles titles in the 1990s, 2000s, 2010s, and 2020s. She won ten Grand Slam titles after age 30, which is more than any other player at that age.
In 2014, she claimed the WTA championship title at age 33 – the oldest champion in tournament history. And then, defying expectations, she returned to the game after giving birth at age 35 and continued playing for another five years.
Serena is the oldest woman to win a Grand Slam singles title and the oldest player in history to hold all four Grand Slam titles simultaneously, from 2014-2015. She had already done it in 2002-2003.
Her determination and grit showed the world that no one can set a timeline for your life except you.
The Greatest of All Time – Male or Female
In 2018, tennis superstar Roger Federer said he believed Serena to be the greatest tennis player of all time – male or female. While some tennis fans quibble with the nuances of this distinction, her impact on the sport and her global legacy seem to agree.
In her career, Serena won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, 73 tour singles titles, held 319 weeks at No. 1, including 186 weeks in succession, claimed a record $94.8 million in prize money, and won 4 Olympic gold medals. She is the all-time Open Era leader in Grand Slam singles titles.
Other players like Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, and Margaret Court have higher numbers than Serena in some categories. But it’s fair to say that Serena’s overall impact may surpass any other player in our lifetime.
The world of tennis will never be the same after Serena. And, though she is “evolving away,” we can’t wait to see what she does next.
AP Photo/Aaron Favila