There was a point during Serena Williams’ quarterfinal match against Camila Giorgi on July 10 where it looked like Williams’ run towards a possible eighth title at Wimbledon and a 24th Grand Slam championship overall was truly in jeopardy.
Giorgi, playing very high-level tennis, had taken the first set and appeared to be the better player on the court. But then that thing happened that often happens when Williams plays: she took it up a level and Giorgi couldn’t keep up, no matter how hard she tried. It was classic Serena Williams, even if her participation in this year’s tournament was anything but normal.
In September, Williams gave birth to her first child, the adorable Alexis Olympia Ohanian, Jr. She then almost died. Blood clots, which almost killed her years ago, were found in her lungs and the after-effects of treating them led to multiple surgeries. After Williams beat Giorgi, her husband, Alexis Ohanian, Sr., tweeted, “Walking to the mailbox was a painful, exhausting challenge for this woman just 9 months ago. This is already nothing short of remarkable.”
It was then that I realized that I was watching the greatest athlete ever — an athlete who, for more than 20 years, has physically overcome and accomplished more than any other in any sport and of any gender.
Despite what has happened in the past year, here Williams is, on the verge of yet another grand slam despite a field of competitors that has gotten better and better during the two decades that she has dominated professional tennis. In large part, this increasing quality of play has to do with her as well — this latest generation of young competitors grew up knowing they would have to face Williams if they ever they wanted to hold a grand slam trophy. (For comparison, Giorgi is a full decade Williams’ junior.)
Williams acknowledged as much this week when she told reporters, “Every single match I play, whether I’m coming back from a baby, or surgery, it doesn’t matter, because these young ladies bring a game that I’ve never seen before… That’s what makes me great. I always play everyone at their greatest, so I have to be greater.”
Williams was born in Saginaw, Michigan, and grew up playing tennis in Compton, California, with her father and coach Richard Williams and her older sister Venus. Richard Williams was a controversial and heavily criticized figure. As they rose to the top of the game, both Williams sisters faced outright racism and sexism, claims that their father pre-determined the winners of matches where they faced off and intense scrutiny over their appearance.
This is part of her story that matters. Just ask Roger Federer, the best male tennis player ever: “She had a totally different upbringing — I came up through Switzerland with the federation, she did it with her dad and her sister. It’s an amazing story unto itself — and then she became one of the greatest, if not the greatest tennis player of all time.”
The numbers don’t lie. Williams has won 23 grand slam titles, more than anyone else in the so-called open era (which started in 1968, when the grand slams were opened to professionals). If she wins Wimbledon, she’ll tie Margaret Court’s 24 titles, a record set back in 1973 and which includes many pre-1968 wins from when the field was only amateurs.
She won the 2007 Australian Open, which she entered unseeded after a period of injury and personal issues, and beat six seeded players on her way to the championship. She won the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant.
Overall, including doubles, Williams has won 39 Grand Slam titles. She won the 2007 Australian Open, which she entered unseeded after a period of injury and personal issues, and beat six seeded players on her way to the championship. She won the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant.
Williams also has four Olympic gold medals. She’s held the number one women’s ranking seven times, “combining for 315 weeks, which ranks her No. 3 in history, 17 weeks behind Martina Navratilova and 62 weeks behind Steffi Graf,” according to Fox Sports. She completed the Serena Slam twice over, which means she won all four grand slam events in a row (just not all in a single calendar year).
And then there are her actions off the court. Williams matched Colin Kaepernick’s donation to Imagine LA, a group that supports homeless families in Los Angeles. She and Venus have opened up a community center in Compton to support residents affected by gun violence. (The center is named after her sister, Yetunde Price, who was shot to death in Compton in 2003.)
Angelique Kerber is one of the few players to have beaten Serena in a grand slam final, back in 2016, and she is having her own mini resurgence after a rough 2017. No matter the outcome, though, Williams’ legacy is secure.
Williams has used her platform to spotlight the work of the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization dedicated to “ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States” and “to challenging racial and economic injustice.” She has written about the pay gap, specifically focusing on how it disproportionately affects black women. She has used her own story of nearly dying in childbirth to draw attention to the fact that black women in the United States have higher mortality rates.
It’s hard to say what will happen in the final today. Opponent Angelique Kerber is one of the few players to have beaten Williams in a grand slam final, back in 2016, and she is having her own mini-resurgence after a rough 2017. No matter the outcome, though, Williams’ legacy is secure.
Yes, there are other absolutely amazing athletes who deserve to be considered one of the greatest athletes ever — if not the greatest — and I’m sure plenty of people will tell me who they think is more qualified than Williams. But have those athletes dominated their sport for two decades, won a championship while pregnant, nearly died twice over and then returned from near death to the top of their sport less than a year later? I believe that’s what they call a rhetorical question.
Jessica Luther is a freelance journalist, author of "Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football And The Politics Of Rape," and co-host of the feminist sports podcast "Burn It All Down." She tweets at @jessicawluther.