Let Serena define her legacy as she retires from tennis

NEW YORK (AP) — After all the many tributes to Serena Williams, the celebratory speeches and video montages, the standing ovations and chants of her name, it seemed fitting that she herself would give the defining look at her legacy.

So the final question in the press conference after her final match at the US Open – and, it seems clear, of her career – gave Williams a chance to say how she would most like to be remembered.

“I feel like I really brought something and I brought something to tennis. The different look. Fist pumping. Just crazy intensity. … ‘Passion’, I think, is a very good word. Just going through the ups and downs,” he replied on Friday night. “I could go on and on. But honestly I’m just so grateful to have this moment — and to be Serena.”

This captures so much about her so well.

And to think: Williams, who turns 41 this month, didn’t even mention anything about being an elite athlete or any of the statistics that help determine what she did with a racquet in her hand.

The 23 Grand Slam championships that came to define success in her sport. Another 50 single titles elsewhere. The 14 men’s doubles with her sister, Venus. The 319 weeks at No. 1. The four Olympic gold medals.

So, of course, it’s impossible to evaluate Williams without considering her place in the pantheon of superstars, as deserving as anyone — woman or man, this generation or any other, this sport or any other — of the honor of “Greatest of All Times” (a smart spectator in Williams’ 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-1 loss to Ajla Tomljanovic held up a poster with, simply, a drawing of a goat).

“She’s an all-time great. Obviously, that’s an understatement,” said Martina Navratilova, an 18-time major winner who is certainly part of that conversation.

But Williams is also much more than that.

No black woman had won a Slam title since Althea Gibson in the 1950s until Williams came along and took her first at the US Open in 1999 at the age of 17. In the more than two decades since, Williams and Venus, who has won seven major singles titles to her credit, have been credited with inspiring Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka and countless others to play tennis, yes, but also for pushing many others to change their views on what can and cannot be done.

“He embodies that no dream is too big,” Tomljanovic said. “You can do anything if you believe in yourself, love what you do and have an incredible support system around you.”

There are more.

She won a Grand Slam title while pregnant, endured terrifying health complications after the birth of her daughter, Olympia, in 2017, and would return to the tour and reach four more major finals.

He has a venture capital firm that has raised more than $100 million.

“Everybody looks at her and tries to be like Serena,” said Caroline Garcia, a French seed seeded 17th and in the fourth round at the US Open. “And I’m sure that will be it for years to come.”

Williams wore whatever she wanted on a tennis court. She reacted the way she wanted, during and away from her matches. She said what she wanted, sometimes referring to social issues, sometimes not, but there was always a sense that she was the one who decided.

There were those who criticized her of course. Those who wondered if he was doing things the right way. Just as there were those who thought it was wrong for her father, Richard, to keep his young daughters off the tennis court.

Hmm, looks like it worked, huh?

“I’m definitely going to miss him on the pitches,” Tomljanovic said, surely echoing the thoughts of many. “It won’t be the same.”

No, tennis certainly won’t be the same without Williams. It’s not even close.

But it does not matter. It was time, as Williams wrote, to “evolve” away from her days as a player. It’s time for her to put extra energy into being a mom and an entrepreneur and whatever else life throws her way.

As Williams remarked after hitting a final shot, “I have such a bright future ahead of me.”

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Howard Fendrich has been the AP tennis writer since 2002. Email him at hfendrich@ap.org or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

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More AP coverage of US Open tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/us-open-tennis-championships and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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