PHOENIX – Tiger. Ali. Tyson. Kareem. Lebron. Bo. Serena.
To earn the honor of single-name status, an athlete must make an impact in their sport that accelerates change in a generational way. Arizona coaches representing tennis at the high school and collegiate levels believe Serena Williams deserve that type of recognition.
Williams closed the door to her playing career last Friday at the U.S. Open, the final act of a 27-year journey that even Hollywood couldn’t script. Iga Świątek and Ons Jabeur will square off in the women’s singles final Saturday.
“It was very unconventional, but what (the Williams family) did, the story, it’s just unbelievable,” said Arizona State women’s tennis coach Sheila McInerney. “You don’t have to have to come from a lot of money, you don’t need a zillion tennis lessons as a kid to be number one and two in the world.”
On the “Greeny Show,” which airs on ESPN Radio, host Mike Greenberg put it simply when talking about the entrance of Serena and Venus Williams into the sport.
“As much as anyone that I can think of in any sport, (they) walked in a door that might not have existed,” Greenberg said “They built the door.”
The upbringing of the sisters was unconventional. Their father, Richard Williams, was their primary tennis coach, aside from a brief stint at The Rick Macci Tennis Academy.
Serena turned pro in 1995 at the age of 14, and the 1999 U.S. Open would be Serena’s big coming out party, securing the first major singles title of her career. But little did those fans in Flushing know at the time, that simply served as a sneak peek for what came next.
Serena went on to claim 23 major singles titles in her career, winning Wimbledon and the Australian Open a whopping seven times each, six U.S. Open titles, and three French Open titles. They even coined a new term in honor of her “non-calender year Grand Slam,” dubbing it the “Serena Slam,” which means winning all four majors simultaneously but not in the calendar year.
It doesn’t stop at singles for Serena. In doubles competitions, Serena won 14 majors and two mixed doubles major titles.
Serena’s impact on the women’s game will be felt for generations to come in so many different aspects of the sport.
For example, when Serena turned pro, the fastest two female servers in the world were Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf. Navratilova’s hardest serve topped out at 104 mph and Graf’s was clocked at 112 mph. Serena’s average serve speed sits between those two at 105 mph but has topped out at 128.6 mph.
Serena has left many huge footprints on the tennis world, but the progress she made in terms of diversity in the sport is certainly her most important.
Prior to the Williams sisters turning pro, Althea Gibson was the only African-American female to win a grand slam title. She won five singles majors in total, and just narrowly missed out on a career grand slam when she was defeated in the final of the 1957 Australian Open.
“Always being at the top and being the target every time you go out there to play, and you’re supposed to win?” McInerney said. “I just think what she’s done, it’s unbelievable.”
In 2008, then only an eight-time grand slam winner, Serena told Bleacher Report just how happy it makes her feel to see more minority involvement in tennis.
“Each year when I go on tour and at the U.S. Open, I see another Black face,” Serena said. “It just makes my heart smile.”
Serena faced all sorts of difficult circumstances during her career, none arguably more polarizing than the incident at the Indian Wells Masters.
Serena and Venus found themselves matched up in the semifinal match, but Venus would be forced to withdraw with tendonitis. This not only led to accusations of match-fixing but resulted in racial abuse toward the Williams family from the crowd.
The sisters boycotted the tournament for 14 years until Serena returned in 2015. In an op-ed with TIME magazine, Serena explained her decision.
“Indian Wells was a pivotal moment of my story, and I am a part of the tournament’s story as well,” Serena said. “Together we have a chance to write a different ending.”
Grand Canyon University women’s tennis coach Katarina Adamovic idolized Serena growing up and believes the Indian Wells story shows just how blessed tennis is to have her representing the sport.
“That just shows her championship mind and how great of a person she is,” Adamovic said. “To overcome that, put that aside and teach people that we can all do better. I think that was a huge moment in her career and American tennis really, to show people how big of a person she is to show up and play.”
Serena’s championship mentality made the biggest difference in her career. Shaking off all the adversity and pressure that comes with being a pioneer in a sport is as great a feat as any title she won.
“It boils down to her grit and her hunger,” said North High School girls tennis coach Kelley Miller. “Mental toughness in tennis is huge. It’s just you and your opponent out there.”
Last Friday night, a star-studded crowd tried to will the champion in her farewell match against Ajla Tomljanovic with signs, fist pumps and cheers. Glued to every point, Serena’s fans watched her complete her career with grace in person or via ESPN’s most-watched tennis telecast with 4.6 million views.
Miller says she always reminds her team of one Serena quote: “The success of every woman should be the inspiration to another.”