I’m not sure if the majority of people understand what we just witnessed this morning. Yes, Serena Williams has solidified herself as the greatest women’s tennis player ever. She is also undoubtedly the most dominant athlete period that the modern age has ever witnessed.
But her 6-4, 6-4 win over big sister Venus in the Australian Open final, which delivered Serena a remarkable 23rd major title and broke the record she’d previously shared with Steffi Graf, was much more than just another championship to add to an already impeccable resume.
When the sisters walked onto the court to determine the Australian Open championship, it was the crescendo of the greatest American sports story of all time.
“My first Grand Slam started here, and getting to 23 here, but playing Venus, it’s stuff that legends are made of,” Serena said after her historic accomplishment. “I couldn’t have written a better story.”
She captured her seventh Australian Open title. She also has seven Wimbledon crowns, six at the US Open and three at the French.
Venus is a seven-time Slam champion, with two US Open’s and five Wimbledon’s in her trophy case. This was her first appearance in the Australian Open since 2003.
After the match, the sisters took turns addressing the assembled crowd.
“Serena Williams … that’s my little sister, guys,” said Venus. “Congratulations, Serena, on No. 23. I have been right there with you. Your win has always been my win. I think you know that I’m enormously proud of you. You mean the world to me.”
This was Venus’ best stretch of tennis at a Grand Slam since her run in 2009 to the Wimbledon final, where she also lost to Serena.
“She’s the only reason the Williams sisters exist,” Serena said, “inspiring me to be the best player I can be.”
It’s hard to believe that Venus is now 36 and Serena, at 35, just became the oldest Slam winner in the Open era. It seems like yesterday when the teen phenoms crashed the tennis establishment straight from the hardscrabble courts of their Compton, California hometown.
And in the same manner that their neighbors crashed the music industry and reformulated America’s consciousness around the over-arching inner city blues, even in places with palm trees and majestic sunshine, the Williams sisters kicked down doors in an unsuspecting sports world that didn’t quite know how to handle their style, flair, hair, talent, drive and unrelenting belief in the beauty of their own athletic dreams.
By the time they reached their early 20’s, they had the heretofore stale and privileged world of pro tennis in a headlock. Between the US Open in ’01 and Wimbledon in ’09, the sisters met up in eight Grand Slam singles finals. They were the first two players ever, men included, to play in four consecutive Slam singles finals during their dominant run from the French Open in 2002 to the 2003 Australian Open.
From 2000 to last year, the singles champion at Wimbledon was either Venus or Serena an incredible 12 times. After the French Open in 2002, they were ranked No. 1 and No. 2, the first time ever that sisters held down the top spots in the world rankings.
There isn’t adequate space here to extol and pontificate on their tennis accomplishments. The results, championships, and overall societal impact are mind-boggling when examined in their totality, and they speak for themselves.
Ya’ll can go ahead and continue your silly debates about who the GOAT is, and I’m talking about across the entire spectrum of the athletic landscape. From LeBron, Michael Jordan, Kareem, Wilt, Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Lawrence Taylor, Joe Montana, Tom Brady, Michael Phelps, Muhammad Ali, Floyd Mayweather, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Usain Bolt, Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses, Pele, Diego Maradona, Lance Armstrong, Wayne Gretzky, Roger Federer, Margaret Court, Steffi Graf or anyone else you want to name, no one was more dominant and impactful than Serena. Ever!
Ever since her ascendance to the world’s #1 ranking for the first time, she’s run the tennis world like Nino Brown ran The Carter. No one can ever question her dedication to her craft. She went through a remarkable nine-year stretch without losing to the game’s other amazing, significant talent (other than Venus) in Maria Sharapova.
She’s fought through blood clots, injuries, personal heartache, disease and the senseless murder of her beloved sister to maintain a level of excellence in sports that is unrivaled. No one in any athletic pursuit has been as excellent and dominant for as long a stretch as Serena.
And judging from her recent dash to this latest historic championship, she has some gas left in the tank to push the sports standard of greatness to an even higher level.
But this is a story about much more, similar to The New Edition Story and Jackson 5 saga in that they rose out of the concrete jungles through their otherworldly talent and unrelenting work ethic, in a way that is the ultimate American success story. They came from the most meager of circumstances, and fought and clawed their way through the minefield of fame, vultures and haters to become legends.
The Williams story is just as much about their father Richard Williams, who grew up impoverished in Shreveport, Louisiana. He was the one who put the tennis rackets in their hands when they were babies, practicing for hours on end on the glass-strewn courts of Compton, molding to young women growing up in a forgotten pocket of urban despair into worldwide celebrities that went on to possess a stupefying portfolio of wealth.
He cared not for the stunned looks he received when he gave the black-power salute at a tournament in Indian Wells, California after the racist crowd booed Serena, or when he danced in the stands like Wu-Tang’s Big Baby Jesus in the stands at Wimbledon, yelling toward anyone who would listen, whether they liked it or not, that his babies were the two best players in the game.
And let’s not forget about their strong, proud, regal mother Oracene, who was just as responsible due to her motherly love and guiding hand as a coach, mentor and role model.
Serena’s game is defined by her power, and there’s nothing more powerful than the narrative of the journey that she took to the top, with her sister right there riding shotgun.
Today’s Australian Open Final was so much bigger than the game of tennis. It was about one of the most incredible sports narratives in history, a family, two loving sisters and ordinary young women growing up surrounded by the negative forces of urban neglect, decay and racial sabotage to accomplish the most extraordinary of feats.
“I felt like it was more just a celebration for everything we’ve done in sports, everything we’ve done for women, everything we’ve tried to do to inspire people,” Serena said after the match, reflecting on the near-20 year professional journey that she and her sister continue to ride out. “This was my first Slam. My first big match against Venus was right here on this stadium court. … I felt like everything had really come full circle.”
Their impact cannot be defined by the limited lens of tennis, as they’ve elevated sports and an an entire culture through not only their athletic gifts, dynamism and accomplishments, but through their intelligence, drive and self-assuredness, all the while fighting against a collective subtle hate from those who wished, better yet demanded, failure from them.
And those beautiful ladies never acquiesced. They simply kicked ass, and took numbers along the way.
“I don’t think we’re going for the greatest story in sports; we’re just going for some dreams,” Venus said after her loss today. “In the case that we are [among the greatest stories in sports history], what an honor, what an honor.”
The true honor has been all ours, ladies. Thank you for giving us the privilege of witnessing it.