Serena Williams

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Calling Serena Williams the greatest women’s player in tennis history may be selling her short. In a Wall Street Journal interview published in 2018, Roger Federer, who is in the GOAT conversation on the men’s side, suggested Williams may be the greatest tennis player ever, regardless of gender.

“[Williams’s career] has been fascinating to watch,’’ Federer said. “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.” 

Williams’ record certainly is without equal in women’s tennis. She has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, the most by any player in the Open Era, and the second-most of all time behind Margaret Court (24). She is the most recent woman to have held all four major singles titles simultaneously (2002–03 and 2014–15)—a feat that informally became known as the “Serena Slam”–and the third player to achieve this twice, after Rod Laver and Steffi Graf. She is also the most recent female player to have won the Surface Slam (major titles on hard, clay and grass in the same calendar year), doing so in 2015. She is also, together with her older sister Venus, the most recent player to have held all four Grand Slam women’s doubles titles simultaneously (2009–10).

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) ranked Serena No. 1 in the world in singles on eight separate occasions between 2002 and 2017, including one run of 186 consecutive weeks, tying the record set by Graf. Overall, she has been WTA No. 1 for a total of 319 weeks, which ranks third in the Open Era behind Graf and Martina Navratilova. She is the only American player, male or female, to win more than 20 majors, and at age 40 (and a mother) was still competing. She won tournaments in four different decades—1990s, 2000s, 2010s, and 2020s.

The numbers only hint at the way the muscular Serena dominated opponents, with an accurate and powerful serve clocked as fast as 128.6 miles an hour—third highest in history—and ground strokes (forehand and two-handed backhand) unmatched in their strength and ferocity. And she had few rivals who matched her intensity and passion for winning. 

 “Champions, they have the mindset and the mindset builds the tennis,” renowned French coach Patrick Mouratoglou, who has coached Serena since 2012, said in an Instagram post in which he compared his player to another men’s player in the GOAT conversation, Novak Djokovic. “It’s all about the mindset, and this is true for everything. Some players that I know, they are champions in their mind.” 

 Serena was born in Saginaw, Michigan  on Sept. 26, 1981, the daughter of Richard Williams and Oracena Price. She is the youngest of Price’s five daughters: half-sisters Yetunde, Lyndrea, and Isha Price, and full older sister Venus.[1] She also has at least seven paternal half-siblings. When the children were young, the family moved to inner-city Compton, California, where Williams started playing tennis at the age of 4. Richard Williams home-schooled Serena and Venus and served as their coach, as did their mother for a time.

 “I never had the ghetto frame of mind,” said Oracene, who worked as a private-duty nurse. “When I first moved there I hated it. Where I was raised, we had trees and a house. It was nice. I was ashamed to say I lived in Compton. After a while I got used to it. But my mind was never in Compton. If my daughters said they couldn’t do anything, I’d say, ‘Yes, you can. You can do anything you want. Nothing is unattainable.'”

In 1991, against the advice of tennis experts, Richard, who had learned to play in part by watching instructional videos, pulled both daughters off the Southern California junior tennis circuit and moved the family to Florida, enrolling Venus and Serena in Rick Macci’s tennis academy.

Like Federer, Hollywood was taken by the saga of the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, and how they were molded into stars by their father, Richard, the title character of the film, King Richard, starring Will Smith that was released in the fall of 2021.

“In the ’90s and the early 2000s, when he was much more forward-facing, Richard was a very controversial and contentious figure in the tennis world,” said Zach Baylin, who wrote the script for King Richard, the 2021 film starring Will Smith that tells the story of the Williams sisters.

“He really saw his job as their coach being not just about what was happening on the court, but about being their hype man. At the time, I think people saw that somewhat contentiously. But what was brilliant was he knew that without the resources [to fund Venus and Serena’s tennis training], he was going to have to build up this aura and myth around them to get people to invest in them.… I think the outward impression was that that bombastic-ness and that contentiousness would’ve been there in the family as well. But it was really the opposite. He was an extremely soft and encouraging father and coach.”

The sisters eventually became celebrated rivals and champion doubles partners, meeting in nine Grand Slam singles finals. When Serena completed her first “Serena Slam,” she defeated Venus in all four finals, and between 2000 and 2016, they won Wimbledon 12 times between them, Serena winning seven times, Venus five. By winning the 2001 Australian Open women’s doubles title, they became the fifth pair to complete the Career Doubles Grand Slam and the only pair to complete the Career Doubles Golden Slam. At the time, Venus and Serena were only 20 and 19 years old, respectively. Nearly a decade later, the duo would go on to win four consecutive Grand Slam doubles titles from 2009 Wimbledon through the 2010 French Open.

Serena parlayed her success on the court–$94 million in career earnings–into a lucrative career as a business entrepreneur, ranked No. 85 by Forbes Magazine on its 2021 Power Women list. She has nearly 20 corporate partners, had investments in 66 startups, launched a direct-to-consumer clothing line, and held a small stake in the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. And she also became an influential voice supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

 “I find Serena to be a great role model for young kids, whether they have aspirations to play professional tennis or not,’’ women’s tennis star Caroline Wozniacki wrote prior to Serena being named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year in 2015.  “When it came to off-court business interests, she didn’t simply sell her name to a manufacturer, she started her own clothing line—and not only helped design the products but also took a hand in establishing the styling and branding of the operation. Also, it’s so important to engage with fans, and she is always signing autographs and taking pictures with a smile. Her charity fund, The Serena Williams Foundation, has done everything from supporting two schools in Kenya to giving scholarships in the U.S. to providing disaster relief in Haiti. She and her sister Venus have even helped revamp a tennis center in Washington, D.C. Serena’s efforts to give back to others are such a positive representation of tennis as a sport.’”