Sports

Witnessing the GOAT’s Final Fight

Serena Williams is still hanging over this U.S. Open, even as it enters its final rounds.

Serena hitting a backhand at the 2022 U.S. Open. In the background, photos of her kissing the trophy (left) and hugging it (right) after winning the Open in 1999 and 2012. An illustrated tennis court border and scrim frames all three photos.
She was every bit the fighter that she has always been. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Jamie Squire/Allsport via Getty Images, Al Bello/Getty Images, and Mike Stobe/Getty Images for USTA.

The second week of the U.S. Open has been wonderful. Ons Jabeur and Iga Swiatek emerged victorious, setting up a women’s final that will pit the world No. 1 Swiatek against recent Wimbledon finalist Jabeur, who will be the first African woman to play in the U.S. Open final and is searching for her first major title. Frances Tiafoe followed up his statement win over Rafael Nadal with a straight set victory over Andrey Rublev to earn a place in the semifinals, the first Black man to make it that far in the U.S. Open since Arthur Ashe. We even were treated to a tremendous, five-hour, five-set showdown between next-big-thing Carlos Alcaraz and Jannick Sinner.

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But as thrilling as it’s been, I find myself suspended somewhere between the future of tennis on display this week and the end of an era that we celebrated last week, as we said farewell to Serena Williams. Her legacy and presence still hang over the 2022 U.S. Open.

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Despite Serena’s absence from the court since losing her thrilling three-set third-round match last Friday to Australian Ajla Tomljanovic, I’m still processing the rollercoaster of emotions, the energy, the tennis, and the spectacle of watching the woman who transformed the sport and transcended the game exit it. I was lucky enough to be there in person when her final grand slam bid began.

Bittersweet joy filled the air when I walked into the Billie Jean King Tennis Facility in Flushing Meadows last Monday evening. I, like so many others, had come to watch Serena’s farewell. As we crowded into the U.S. Open grounds, the energy was palpable. It was the chance to see her play one last time, together, to cheer and celebrate greatness that we had witnessed for so long you almost take it for granted.

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On opening night, we were unsure if there would even be another night—unclear if the aging superstar who had only played a sprinkling of matches in the past year was healthy enough, was fit enough, was strong enough to make it out of the first round.

Maybe we should have known better. We are talking about Serena Williams after all.

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When she walked onto the court, bedazzled and sparkling in a cape, the excitement exploded. It was so loud; it could barely be contained. It bubbled over and seeped into every nook and cranny of Arthur Ashe Stadium. The crowd visibly struggled to quiet down for each game, a simmering roar echoing over the court. Calls of “I love you, Serena!” and “Let’s go, Serena!” punctured the arena.

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The match began, and Serena came into form before our eyes. After struggling through the first few games, she found her serve and began to move better. And when she won a big point, and pierced the air with a fist pump and her signature scream, the stadium erupted. In that moment the Serena of old seemed somehow back; I felt the past and the present wrap around each other.

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She stuck around. A forehand here, an ace there. Flashes of the tennis we had watched Serena play for years. With the large video monitors circulating images of her previous triumphs, the past became the backdrop on which Serena’s real-time evolution, as she terms it, was playing out. The montages were designed as a celebratory and reflective send-off, but I could not stop thinking of the parts that didn’t make the highlight reel, the clips that would underscore the enormity of this journey.

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If you looked closely, you could still see those lightly erased memories peeking through. In that first match, as Serena played on, taking the first set 6–3 and sending the arena into a frenzy, the diamonds in her hair sparkled and shined. These served as an upgraded homage to the signature white beads she wore when she won her first grand slam title here at the U.S. Open, in 1999. Lest the tonsorial callback escape anyone, Serena’s 5-year-old daughter Olympia sat courtside, cheering on her mother while rocking those same beads, the ones that Serena and Venus’ mother Oracene Price had put in both of her daughters’ hair so they would remember their heritage and where they came from—so that they would remain grounded in their identity while navigating a predominantly white, upper-class space. “I wanted them to be proud of it,” Price said in a 2013 documentary, “… and not let anyone make them ashamed of it. That was the point of the beads.”

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In 1999, when Serena played in the U.S. Open final, the Ashe crowd was overwhelmingly white. Yet, as the 17-year-old closed in on victory over then–world No. 1 Martina Hingis, the stadium began to transform. Service workers “materialized from nowhere” and stood in the aisles of the stadium cheering. Wearing aprons and uniforms, they gleefully hugged and high-fived when Serena won. (At the time, Venus had already made it to the U.S. Open final, in 1997, but she lost that match to Hingis, and by ’99, still hadn’t yet won a grand slam. She’d go on to win seven.)

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Last week, Ashe looked very different. The crowd—its diversity, and its Blackness specifically—told a story about how Serena and Venus brought change into tennis with them, not simply onto the court but in the stands.

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The sisters were unapologetically and undeniably Black. They didn’t soften it, but rejoiced in it. They talked about Zina Garrison and Arthur and Althea. They called out racism. They moved as a family. They won. They dominated. They made themselves so undeniable that professional tennis had to begrudgingly yield to their presence.

As Serena moved into the second round of the 2022 U.S. Open, I thought about those cheering service workers in ’99; I thought about the Black folks who have loved her unconditionally, before titles, before medals, before she was the GOAT. That spirit was there in Ashe last week, cheers embedded with the dreams and pride of a community. It rippled out and echoed on the courts where Naomi, Taylor, Coco, Sloane, Tiafoe, and Madison were playing as well.

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Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff have long been vocal about the influence the Williams family has had on their own careers. They unsurprisingly led the tributes pouring in from the tennis community. And Frances Tiafoe, who is having a breakthrough tournament, rocked a “Serena GOAT” sweatshirt while fielding questions about his victory over Nadal. Tiafoe spoke to the power of representation and explicitly tied his path to tennis to the Williams sisters’ trailblazing. It might seem funny to say that Serena Williams’ influence is underappreciated, but too often the scope of her vast impact is not in full view—both within and outside of tennis. How often do we actually hear about their influence on the men’s game? Or on the women’s game more generally, not just for the women of color? Or on other sports for that matter?

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On Wednesday, as Serena prepared to take on world No. 2 Anett Kontaveit, U.S. Olympian and professional volleyball player Chiaka Ogbogu joined the crowd in Ashe. “Serena and Venus were my first examples of power female athletes,” Ogbogu told me. “Serena was the first Black woman I saw win something on a big stage, and for me that was powerful.” Gotham FC defender Ellie Jean was also there to watch the Williams sisters, calling them “inspiring and trailblazers in every way, shape, and form.”

Both Ogbogu and Jean understand what it feels like to play predominantly white sports that are being transformed by Black women. “There are parallels from the tennis crowds to the soccer crowds,” Jean noted while complimenting Serena’s career on and off the court. “She’s the blueprint,” Ogbogu agreed. “The fact that Serena shows up unapologetically herself in a sport that doesn’t have a lot of people who like us—and dominated! I hope she knows how grateful we all are for her.”

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As the second-round match began, it felt like a bonus. An extra chance to see Serena one last time. Twenty-nine thousand, nine hundred fifty-nine fans filled the stadium, setting a new attendance record and breaking the previous one set during Serena’s match two days earlier. Indeed, the entire tournament—like so many slams have for years—was benefiting from Serena’s presence. One Stubhub spokesperson confirmed that the ticket sales were on pace to break records and estimated that nearly a third of those sales were tied to people’s desire to see Serena’s last games.

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And surely, Wednesday night’s match versus the world’s No. 2 player would be the last game. Right?!

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Serena fired up the crowd in the first set, winning a tense tiebreak. It was a battle, and she was in it! But after Kontaviet took a commanding 5-1 lead in the second set, some of that thrill was overcome by doubt. Doubt that Serena could hang on, keep up, fight back. Even Serena thought “Oh my goodness this could be it” as the second set concluded. Yet in the third, she came out swinging, seeming to tap into a new reserve of power and energy. Serena dominated the set. The crowd roared with each point, and they exploded in cheers when she won the match.

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Afterward, everyone seemed surprised by her victory—except Serena. The U.S. Open, clearly not planning for multiple Serena matches and celebrations, just reran the same tribute videos from Monday night. When Mary Jo Fernandez asked Serena if she was surprised by her level of play, Serena paused, wearing a face that said “c’mon now (in the most polite terms)” before chuckling and saying “well, I’m just Serena, you know”.

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Just Serena.

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The woman who came up from the courts on Compton Park, who came back from life-threatening pulmonary embolisms and won 10 slams in her 30s, who won the Australian Open pregnant, and nearly five years ago to the week, almost died during childbirth, then came back again, and went to four more slam finals.

Telling Serena Williams that something is impossible is simply handing her an invitation—and motivation—to prove you wrong.

That sort of confidence and resilience has helped catapult Serena into legend. Not because she makes it look easy—but because you witness the fight. You see when she digs deep. Australia 2007, New York in 2012. Pregnancy. With a target on her back. With full-throated emotion, while her anger—and joy—are policed and scrutinized. She has seemed at once superhuman and immensely human. An imperfect perfectionist.

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How she’s asserted that humanity has been influential beyond all of the extraordinary things she’s done with her body on a tennis court. Through its iterations and changes, she has loved that body. She has loved her body in the spotlight as it’s been scrutinized and degraded. For years, she almost certainly got less in endorsement deals than she might have because she was Black and curvy; for women, muscular and dominating will never be as mass-marketable as white, blonde, and petite. It might be simple for some to dismiss or gloss over this history of such a beloved icon, especially amid the outpouring of adoration she has received this U.S. Open. But for many of us, it’s impossible to forget. She has valued herself when others did not.

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It is precisely her unwavering sense of self that is intoxicating. She will make you believe; she will make you dream. By Friday night against Tomljanovic, when she was up 5–3 in the first set, my group chats had fully begun to feel like the improbable was now possible—was now destined. Somehow, someway, she was going to sustain this level of play, progress in the tournament and capture her 24th grand slam as her final act.

In an age where hope is fleeting, and jaded cynicism is the modus operandi of the day, the sight of Serena Williams, center court, racquet in hand, was enough to make me, for a moment, question the so-called impossible. She had earned that belief earlier in the week, and over all these decades.

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Alas, though Serena is the stuff of legends, this is not a fairy tale.

She fought to the end. When her serve abandoned her, she just kept swinging. Tomljanovic pushed her to the brink multiple times, but for 14 minutes, she refused to relent. In that final game, down 5–1 in the third set, Serena faced five match points, and she beat back them all to force yet another deuce, then another, and another. For 14 minutes, she packed every ounce of fight into her game to stay alive. And then at last, match point number six went her opponent’s way, Serena’s attempt at a down-the-line forehand finding the top of the net. She lost as she won: a tenacious competitor. Point after point she saved, commanded even more awe. She had been defying expectations all week, but those 14 minutes might have been her finest, rawest, and most phenomenal.

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Last week was magical, but Serena is not magic. She is hard work; she is dedication; she is confidence. She is an icon, but she is human.

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We often make our heroes—especially symbolic Black heroes—avatars for our own dreams and triumphs. They symbolically shoulder collective hopes while existing at the nexus of society’s understandings of race, gender, class, and politics. Throughout her career, Serena has carried an outsize share of those politics. In the past 20-plus years, who in sports has meant as much, personally, as Serena has to so many fans and critics?

In many ways, this U.S. Open provided a perfect ending. On her terms, unencumbered by the expectations of others, there just to exist for herself: to play for herself, to define herself. To love herself, and be loved back, without conditions or caveats, in victory or defeat. Just to be.

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I’m sure that she wanted more than anything to keep winning. But I hope that how she went out is liberating for her. I hope it is peaceful. I hope it contains as much joy as she has given us over these years.

There is a clip of Serena, preparing for the launch of her clothing line with her sister Isha. Isha asks how she is doing, and a briefly vulnerable Serena says that it’s a lot to perform at a high level, to manage a budding business, to be a mom and a wife—a symbol. When Isha asks her to look in the mirror and narrates what she sees, Serena quickly says “imperfection.” Isha counters and says: “You are enough.”

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I’ll be cheering on Jabeur and Swiatek as they chase the trophy this weekend. But I also know I’ll still be thinking about Serena. Maybe they will be, too. Last week, in front of buzzing Ashe crowds and record-setting TV audiences, Serena was not always perfect, but she was persistent. She was every bit the fighter that she has always been, beyond the spectacle of grand slams, whether rocking beads in her hair or diamonds. As in every chapter of her career, now, as she prepares to “explore a new version of Serena,” she is still so much more than enough.

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