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Serena Williams’s Legacy On the Court All About Power and Intimidation


Serena Williams didn’t invent a tennis shot, although she actually got here near perfecting one together with her serve.

She was not, in absolutely the sense, a pioneer for elite Black tennis players. Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe were the primary Black players to face down the barriers to entry and succeed at the best level, followed by champions like Zina Garrison and Yannick Noah.

But there isn’t a doubt, with Williams about to play in her farewell U.S. Open just ahead of turning 41, that she modified the sport she long dominated; the sport she has learned, over time, to treasure.

Her legacy, which is in lots of respects shared together with her older sister and soulmate Venus Williams, is clear within the powerful, aggressive style that has develop into the norm, if not quite the rule, on tour. See the full-cut, all-action, rip-the-return approach of No. 1 Iga Swiatek and Elena Rybakina, the brand new Wimbledon champion.

“Considered one of the best impacts Serena had is she definitely took the sport to a unique level,” said Mary Joe Fernandez, the ESPN analyst and former WTA star whose playing profession overlapped with those of the Williamses. “Serena modified it in other ways, whether physically, mentally or movement-wise. It just got higher, and it got higher due to Serena and in addition Venus.”

The legacy can be there within the presence of talented young Black women’s stars like Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka and within the increasing variety of Black junior players, who, together with their families, have used the Williams sisters as a template. One other indicator: 10 of the highest 30 Americans on this week’s WTA singles rankings are Black or biracial (and none of those 10 is a Williams sister at this stage).

“I believe every thing began with Venus and Serena,” said Martin Blackman, general manager of player development at america Tennis Association. “There’s little question concerning the power and the impact of that demonstration effect. I believe it was much more powerful because they grew up in Compton, and regardless of where you reside, you already know that Compton is a tricky place to grow up. And what their parents Richard and Oracene did to get them what they needed to develop into champions is just an unbelievable American success story.”

That story, as Blackman points out, has resonated not only with African-American families. It has much broader reach.

“It might be Latino, Asian or Caucasian — it doesn’t matter. It transcends all races,” said Nick Saviano, a veteran American coach who owns an academy in Florida and has worked with leading pro players like Sloane Stephens, Amanda Anisimova, Eugenie Bouchard and Gauff.

“I see the Williamses’s impact on daily basis,” Saviano said. “If I’m going to a 10-and-under tournament I see it. I see more people from different ethnic backgrounds. I see people daring to dream big.”

In pure tennis terms, in terms of the actual playing of the sport, the Williams sisters have been more about evolution than revolution, more concerning the often-irresistible quality of the general package than groundbreaking innovation. And though Serena has undoubtedly been the best player of this era, Venus, with an analogous tool kit, did come first and is inextricably a part of the step change.

“I like to take a look at them individually and at their individual accomplishments, however it’s hard to separate them because they helped one another be great,” said Corey Gauff, father and coach of Coco Gauff.

The nice women’s players who preceded the sisters had loads of strengths. Chris Evert was a paragon of cool and consistency. Martina Navratilova set recent standards for fitness and attacking prowess, relishing life at the online. Steffi Graf had speed and explosive power off her unconventional, often-airborne forehand, and her crisply chipped backhand was devilish otherwise: skidding low and proving difficult to attack.

Monica Seles, with deft double-handed groundstrokes, was a relentless ball-striker and in-the-moment competitor who hugged the baseline and will hit winners off the short bounce together with her forehand or her backhand. The relatively underpowered Martina Hingis played tennis akin to chess or geometry by changing paces, angles and trajectories.

But Venus after which, in a short time, Serena posed an unprecedented, multipronged threat. They were big servers and large hitters who could also sprint into the corners, players who could produce winners with any stroke and make their side of the court look frightfully small to the opposition.

“It was similar to one other dimension of physicality, power and mental toughness,” Fernandez said. “I believe those are the three things that stood out: how hard and the way consistently they were in a position to hit the ball and the way well they were in a position to cover the court after which the grit. I mean, to beat Serena you needed to knock her out just a few times.”

Fernandez, a three-time Grand Slam singles finalist once ranked as high as No. 4, said the Williamses’s emergence contributed to her decision to retire in 2000.

“I caught Serena and Venus at the top of my profession, but they’re one in all the explanations I used to be like, ‘OK, the sport has evolved now, and I can’t sustain’,” she said “It was such a struggle to give you the chance to resist it. I couldn’t match it, so I just knew this was now a unique level, a unique stage in the game. Game-wise, I believe they each improved as years went by, each became higher players and have become students of the sport, however it was just that dominant power, court coverage and intensity.”

Justine Henin, the Belgian star with the gorgeous one-handed backhand who was one in all Serena’s early and fiercest rivals, said that the intimidation was real.

“We are able to talk all we would like about her tennis qualities, but one in all her strengths was to point out that she was convinced that she was going to walk right over you although normally she must have been stuffed with doubts like all players,” Henin said of Serena in a recent interview with the French publication L’Équipe. “That generated all types of fears for her opponents. I used to be afraid for a very long time.”

Swiatek, Gauff and the brand new wave of girls’s players seem less inclined to intimidate their opponents, though anyone who has experienced Aryna Sabalenka roar as she generates startlingly easy power can detect a sonic and attitudinal link with Serena.

The Williams sisters popularized the open-stance backhand and the swing or drive volley, though they weren’t the progenitors.

“People say Serena was not a terrific volleyer, and no, she wouldn’t be categorized as having a terrific forehand or backhand volley,” Saviano said. “Because more often than not she was ending points with swinging volleys, and she or he was good at it.”

The sisters also re-emphasized the importance of early preparation on the backhand.

“Super early,” Saviano said. “They principally just pulled the racket back almost immediately and waited for the ball. Technically, that was a bit unusual.”

They followed Seles’s lead by attacking second serves relentlessly, even when the errors sometimes piled up.

The following generation clearly took note, and it’s a tribute to each sisters and a part of their heritage that their power isn’t any longer a cut above. Their successors have adapted, as Emma Raducanu, last yr’s surprise U.S. Open champion from Britain, made clear when she beat Serena, 6-4, 6-0, in the primary round of the Western and Southern Open this month. Raducanu counterpunched coolly and effectively when Serena upped the amount and velocity.

Though there have been true power servers within the pre-Williams years like Brenda Schultz-McCarthy of the Netherlands, Serena raised the bar together with her smooth and potent serve. More women on tour are able to recurrently approaching 110 miles per hour and beyond with their first serves, players like Rybakina, Osaka, Sabalenka, Gauff, Karolina Pliskova and Maria Sakkari.

“I actually think Serena let people know in the event you’re strong and tall and wish to achieve success in tennis, you’ll be able to serve this big,” said Rennae Stubbs, the ESPN analyst and former world No. 1 doubles player from Australia who has also coached stars like Pliskova.

Stubbs is providing Serena with on-court advice this week during practice as a part of the coaching team. “I’m just helping; I’m advising,” she said. “We’ve been great friends for a very long time, and I’m just helping her as much as I can to complete this profession the way in which it deserves to be finished.”

Stubbs added: “Whatever happens, she has proved herself to be truly one in all the nice athletes of all time, and we’re going to miss her passion. That’s the word I believe that epitomizes Serena so well is just passion for the sport of tennis and sports and keenness for excellence. That’s what separates the nice ones.”

She continued: “And after they felt the excellence was not there anymore, they may walk away. And I believe that’s where Serena is at right away.”

Though Serena has announced that the top is near, she still is just not prepared to state plainly that the U.S. Open is her last tournament, at the same time as she prepares to face Danka Kovinic, an unseeded Montenegrin, in the primary round on Monday night.

“I don’t know, I believe so, but who knows?” she said on Thursday during a public appearance hosted by a Manhattan hotel.

The Australian Open, the following Grand Slam tournament on the calendar, starts in January. Could she be there?

“I don’t think so,” she said. “You never know. I’ve learned in my profession: Never say never.”

There may be a message in her resistance to goodbye, as well. She has played far longer than even she expected or her father, Richard, predicted. In doing so, in getting back from childbirth at age 36 to play several more seasons, she has reminded the younger generation to follow their very own timelines, much as Navratilova did before her and as her 41-year-old contemporary Roger Federer has done in the sport that he is also clearly loath to depart.

“I believe among the finest things Serena has given to this sport is her longevity and still wanting to be great,” Stubbs said.

That is an element of her legacy, too.

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