The sport of tennis shed a collective tear or two when the grim truth finally dawned on the world late on Friday night following the unravelling at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York.
Serena Williams had just played her last set in a third-round loss to Ajla Tomljanovic in the US Open and said her goodbyes in front of a raucous crowd gathered to witness the last hurrahs of one of the greatest to ever play the game.
When all was said and done, there would be no hurrahs. Only an indescribable feeling of loss and immense gratitude. For the fans, for tennis, and for athletes all around the world who share a familial bond in the cycle of sacrifice and struggle in the pursuit of success that Serena had so stupendously summarised over the course of her quarter-century-long professional career.
It was quite fitting then that the moment arrived at the Arthur Ashe Stadium, the same venue where she had burst onto the scene as a prodigious teenager and conquered the first of her 23 Grand Slam singles titles 23 years ago.
Her storied career had begun to take root after her family moved to Compton, California.
In the public tennis courts of a troubled American gangland neighbourhood riddled with notoriety, violence, and decadence, Serena and her elder sister Venus’ dreams were fuelled by their father Richard Williams’ persistence.
"I don't know how I'm going to be able to look at this magazine when it comes out, knowing that this is it, the end of a story that started in Compton, California, with a little Black girl who just wanted to play tennis. This sport has given me so much," Serena wrote in her Vogue article announcing her decision to call time on her professional career last month.
So, how do you attempt to do justice while trying to capture the impact that Serena has had on the sport and beyond? You could try to do it with numbers and facts. 858 tour victories, 73 singles titles, 23 Grand Slam singles titles, 16 Grand Slam doubles titles, four Olympic gold medals, 319 weeks spent at No 1.
She has defeated a player born every single year between 1966 and 2001, four separate decades have seen her cruising to a Grand Slam semi-final, 6-1 was a more frequent set scoreline across her career than 6-4 and contrary to expectations, she won more 6-0 sets than tie-breaks.
Astonishing, jaw-dropping, strictly sensational and with a certain consistency that defeats common sense.
You could also try to paint a picture of Serena with the profound admiration and adulation with which her peers and champions of other domains talk about her.
“It’s truly been fun to watch Serena not only change the sport of tennis, but more importantly, how she’s helped empower the next generation. Her tennis accomplishments speak for themselves, but one of the things I admire about her is she simply doesn’t quit. On or off the court,” said the most successful Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps.
25-year-old Simone Biles, considered by many to be the greatest gymnast of all time, thanked Serena "for transcending sports for black athletes, female athletes and every athlete." Tiger Woods, who needs little introduction, called her "the greatest on and off the court" and an "inspiration for all of us to pursue our dreams."
Coco Gauff tweeted that it’s because of Serena that she believes in her own dreams and is now pursuing a professional career in tennis while talk show queen Oprah Winfrey labelled her a "Legend forever!"
Four-time NBA Champion LeBron James called her the ‘GOAT’ on video and added, “What you’ve done for the sport, what you’ve done for women … is unprecedented. It was an honour to watch your journey, to watch you conquer all the goals you ever set, to see you break records, to see you just be amazing on the tennis court and also off it.”
On the other hand, former Tennis World No 1s Andy Roddick and Billie Jean King suggested that "her greatest contributions may be yet to come."
While both attempts deserve merit and come close to justifying the richness of Serena’s greatness, perhaps, the best way to describe her career wholly and truly are not with her supreme abilities and a plethora of titles won on the court, but with the lifelong fight she has been raging off it.
That ‘little Black girl’, as Serena had described herself in her Vogue article, not only became the greatest exponent of her craft against all odds but went on to become the beacon of non-conforming change in a sporting world otherwise bogged down by norms of colour, creed, sex, and status.
While black players, including legends like Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson, had been around the sport before, they were few and far between.
Today, the struggles and journeys of both the Williams sisters are credited for transforming what was once regarded as an exclusively white sport into a safer and more welcoming space for people from every colour and background to come in and show their talents and feel like they truly belong there.
It’s no secret that women have historically found it more difficult to get what they’re worth whether it be institutional pay compared to their male peers or in the form of sponsorships, grants, and large endorsement deals.
Serena has also been a catalyst in changing the perspective of female athletes forever from a marketing perspective and brands today are more open to collaborating with talented young girls and women and sponsoring them in the search of more equal representation.
Even in the way that people talk about female athletes today, Serena has played a titanic role in crushing previously imposed stereotypes of physical limitations. Winning a 23rd singles Grand Slam title while being nine weeks pregnant with baby Olympia is quite literally the very definition of the word ‘superhuman’.
Despite struggling with complicated childbirth as well as pulmonary embolism as a blood clot was discovered in her lungs, leaving her bedridden for six weeks, she was back on Grand Slam tour with an appearance in the French Open in 2018 and has played four Grand Slam finals since then, including the 2018 Wimbledon and 2018 US Open finals.
Even with her fashion choices both on and off the court, her preference of music and art, as well as with her crossover mainstream appeal with appearances in mass entertainment ranging from magazine covers to music videos and film cameos, Serena has continued to push the envelope while staying true to her roots and culture, becoming an icon and emblem in the process.
As she withdraws from the sport that she had so successfully transcended long ago, one can only guess what the future holds for the serial winner and the ultimate champion.
A trailblazing entrepreneur, Serena’s own venture capital fund, Serena Ventures, has funded 16 companies valued at $1 billion or more, and that 78 % of its portfolio are companies started by women or people of colour.
If her grit, aggression, determination, years of struggle on the court are anything to go by, off the court, Serena will continue to kick down doors and make the world a more accessible and easier place for the ones who feel looked down upon despite having the light to burn brighter than the sun.
After almost 27 years, she leaves tennis richer and greater than she found it and it’s been a privilege for the millions who collectively partook in her journey in any way, shape, or form all along.
Anjishnu Roy is a freelance sports writer and journalist. When he's not busy trying to capture the highs and lows of professional sports through words, he's probably raving about a Denis Villeneuve or Asghar Farhadi film.