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Monday, Serena Williams takes the court at the U.S. Open to compete in what is expected to be the last Grand Slam of her legendary career. No one denies that she's changed the game and many consider her the greatest tennis player of all time. Sportswriter William C. Rhoden joins Amna Nawaz to discuss Williams' accomplishments and legacy.
Well, tonight, Serena Williams takes the court at the U.S. Open to compete in what's expected to be the last major Grand Slam of her legendary career.
Many consider Williams, who is now 40, the greatest tennis player of all time, and no one denies that she's changed the game.
Let's take a look at the impact that she's had both on and off the court.
With each swing, each step, each day, Serena Williams inches closer to the end of an incomparable era of tennis. She has already taken home six titles here at the U.S. Open, but, this time, she says, will likely be her last.
Over her 27-year pro career, Williams has won 856 matches, and lost just 154. That includes an astounding 365 major match wins, the most of all time, and 23 Grand Slam singles titles, the most in the Open era. Off the court, she has shattered barriers, battling racism and sexism, redefining beauty, and setting new bars for financial success, earning not only $95 million in career prize money, the most of any women's tennis player in history, but also superstar big brand endorsements.
She has also repeatedly challenged the status quo, claiming her last major title while pregnant in 2017…
And Serena smashes Steffi's record. It's number 23.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
… a pregnancy that nearly killed her.
Then used to her voice to raise awareness for Black maternal mortality, writing in "Elle" magazine — quote — "Black women are nearly three times more likely to die during or after childbirth than their white counterparts. Being heard and appropriately treated was the difference between life or death for me. I know those statistics would be different if the medical establishment listened to every Black woman's experience."
For the next generation, like 18-year-old tennis star Coco Gauff, Williams set a standard to reach for.
Coco Gauff, Professional Tennis Player:
If she had 23 Grand Slams and was a terrible person, I wouldn't consider her the GOAT. I think, for me, what makes her the GOAT is her personality and all that she's done for off the court to fight for equality, to fight for young players like me.
Serena Williams was raised in Compton, California. Her father, Richard, coached her and sister Venus on public courts. Big things were expected from an early age. Here is Serena at 11.
Serena Williams, Professional Tennis Player:
I would like to be a tennis player.
If you were a tennis player, who would you want to be like?
Well, I like other people to be like me.
Three years later, she turned pro. Three years after that, she won her first Grand Slam title at the 1999 U.S. Open. She was just 17.
Injuries threatened to derail Williams career. An ankle sprain forced her to withdraw from the 2002 Australian Open. But, within months, she was hoisting trophies again, winning the French Open, the U.S. Open, and Wimbledon, defeating big sister Venus in each of those finals.
Serena Williams had solidified her place as the number one player in the world. And her impact on the game, says tennis legend Chris Evert, is undeniable.
Chris Evert, Former Professional Tennis Player:
There's two things about Serena. I think the legacy about her game is, she brought power, a new level of power into the game, and also Venus too. The Williams sisters have brought power. They brought fearlessness in and — on and off the court.
The Williams sisters became fierce opponents and dominant teammates, becoming the first sister-duo to claim Olympic doubles gold in 2000, 2008, and 2012.
But their success didn't shield them from blatant racism. After the crowd hurled racial slurs at the family during the 2001 Indian Wells tournament in California, Serena boycotted the event for 14 years. When she returned in 2015, she explained why in a "TIME" magazine op-ed, writing — quote — "Indian Wells was a pivotal moment of my story, and I am a part of the tournament's story as well. Together, we have a chance to write a different ending."
Another ending now nears, as Williams hints at her next chapter in life. On Friday, in New York City, Williams, whose venture capital firm Serena Ventures has raised $111 million, rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, mere days before what's expected to be her final major tennis tournament.
I think that Serena has contributed probably more off the court than on the court.
I mean, I look at her off the court. I look at her fearlessness you know, body shaming to women of color, to mothers working. She's really spoken up for a lot of issues.
I think the fact, on the tennis court, she's brought a new level of power into the game. And so she has been — she has revolutionized power in women's tennis. I put her right up there with Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King and Michael Jordan and — as far as superstar-superstar.
Let's delve more into Serena Williams' incredible career and legacy with William C. Rhoden. He has long covered her, as well as her sister, Venus, and many other tennis greats.
He's been writing about her accomplishments for the sports and culture Web site Andscape.
Bill Rhoden, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Always good to have you here.
We're talking about Serena's next chapter, because of this essay she wrote in "Vogue." But she didn't say retirement. She said transition. She said evolution. What does that mean to you, and what did you think when you read it?
William C. Rhoden, Andscape:
Well, the first thing that got me is when she said the R-word, because that terrifies me too.
That's the thing that resonated with me, just the idea of not doing something that you have been doing, in my case, since I was like 10 years old, and the idea of not retiring. And I know how terrifying it has to be for her to be 8 years old, to come from Compton, to become what I think, along with her sister — I have been doing this now for 49 years.
And I think, without doubt, the story of Venus and Serena Williams is probably the greatest sports story in United States history, bar none. And for her to finally wake up one day and look at her daughter, say, you know what, I just don't want to do this anymore. I know that has to be hard. It has to be pulling at her heart.
But if there's any solace, is that what she has accomplished for women, for Black women, for equity, I think, at this point of our history, is unparalleled. I think it's just — we're at the point now it's still fresh, and words, all the wordsmiths, words can't really describe the impact that she has had at so many levels.
I think about my Black mother, my Black sister, my Black daughter, and what she's meant for them in terms of empowerment, in terms of confidence, in terms of victory. It's just — it's just such mixed emotions, because I hate to see her go. I hate to see her go. But I'm so excited about these next chapters.
Bill, she is one Grand Slam title short of beating the record, Margaret Court's record of 24. Do you think there's any chance she ties that or breaks that before she says goodbye?
William C. Rhoden:
Amna, as we can identify this as journalists, the great…
Look, we cheer for the story, right?
The great story is that she finds one more magical moment at the U.S. Open, and we find her playing Saturday.
I mean, what better — what better way to go out than to win — to tie Margaret Court at the U.S. Open? I mean, that would just be unbelievable. But, like, now I'm thinking as a journalist, and then also with my heart, but that would be — that would be yet another movie.
Well, the big question, as you mentioned briefly, it's legacy, right? It is impact both on the court and off.
I mean, the game, if you just look at her impact on the game, it is different today than it was pre-Serena. Tell me about her impact just on the game of tennis.
Well, just — and Chris Evert mentioned it too, just the introduction of power.
And Venus, by the way, I have got to say, Venus was sort of the precursor to that, because we had never seen anybody with that type of power before. Serena just took it to a whole 'nother level, of just playing a pure power game.
And I also think that we have to talk about the intimidation factor. And this was so liberating, I think, to women athletes, and that, hey, man, you could get up there and you could sweat. You could be a sweat-getter. Sometimes, you could curse if you want to.
And I think that was just so liberating. I think that her competitiveness is — to me, is what sets her apart. She's just such a ferocious competitor. So, I think that the — the power, but the power in combination with just being a ferocious competitor, I think, is really what has made her a timeless figure in that sport.
You had this great line about her in your latest piece. I will quote from you here.
You said: "She's been the sports equivalent of Beyonce and is her generation's Aretha Franklin, singing loud and long and leaving no uncertainty about the way she felt."
What did you mean by that?
That's — if you have ever been to — I was fortunate to see Aretha and Beyonce kind of out the side of my eye.
But, with Aretha, Aretha was just this natural force. She is just a natural — she's just this natural force of nature. And you leave a concert from her and you have — there's no mistaking how she felt about life.
And I think that, with Serena, she left all her emotions on the court. There was no — I mean, I know she's probably not proud of this one, but she confronted that poor line judge. And she told her what she was going to do with that racket, how she was going to stick it down her throat.
And Serena is one of the sweetest people you would want to meet off the court. But, there, anybody at courtside, they're like, yikes.
So, she — you — after a Serena Williams match — and I'm sure, if it happens tonight, you will know exactly how she feels. She's not going to prettify it. She's not going to sugarcoat.
And that's what I love about her, is just that she really leaves — it's just so raw, and she leaves it on the court. I just think that's — just what she's done for that sport is phenomenal.
And I will say — it's probably not going to happen, but there should be statues of Venus and Serena in Australia, at the French Open, in Wimbledon, at the U.S. Open. There should be statues at each one of those Grand Slams for what they have done for this sport.
I think that, like I said, right now, it's kind of hard for us to take the measure of it because it's so new and fresh, but it's just immeasurable.
Well, I think you and I will both be among the millions watching and waiting to see what happens as she closes out this remarkable chapter.
William C. Rhoden of Andscape joining us tonight, thank you so much for your time.
And one more note.
As you might expect, Serena intends to go out in style beginning tonight. She will be wearing a figure skating-inspired outfit for comfort and freedom of movement featuring six layers, one for each of the titles she's won in Flushing Meadows. But that is not all. Her sneakers will feature 400 hand-set diamonds and solid gold elements too.
Going out in style, indeed. We will expect nothing less from Serena Williams.
Watch the Full Episode
Amna Nawaz joined PBS NewsHour in April 2018 and serves as the program's chief correspondent and primary substitute anchor.
Courtney Norris is the deputy senior producer of national affairs for the NewsHour. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @courtneyknorris
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