Why Serena Williams has the greatest career in sports history

As the clock turned to the year 2000, ESPN published his ranking of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. The list was objectionable on several fronts: Babe Ruth before Muhammad Ali? Secretariat – yes, the horse – before Oscar Robertson? Before Lawrence Taylor? But the worst part about the list was that it was a sausage fest. There were five women in the top 50, with Chris Evert at number 50. Of the five, only two were black women, the highest ranking being track and field legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee at 23. That arid landscape was the sports world that Serena Williams boldly conquered chosen to rule.

In 2000, Serena Williams was a 19-year-old tennis prodigy who was still playing in the shadow of big sister Venus. The standard belief of almost everyone – with the exception of her father, Richard Williams – was that Serena Dom DiMaggio would be Venus’ Joltin’ Joe: a fine career, but always the family afterthought. But Serena had already won the US Open by the age of 17 and her confidence was high. This momentum would continue for another 22 years. She now has the greatest career in professional sports history.

With Serena Williams set to retire after the upcoming US Open, it’s worth taking stock of the magnitude of what she’s accomplished. When Serena Williams turned pro, Bill Clinton was in his first term as president; the film toy story was the number one box office hit of the year – and Serena wasn’t much older than toy storythe target group of . It was 1995 and she was 14 years old. She won a whopping $250 in her first pro match against a terrific trivia answer named Annie Miller. Now Serena’s career ends 27 years later with 23 Grand Slam titles in singles and 14 titles in doubles. Her career predates that of five-time Wimbledon champion Bjorn Borg when he retired.

The length of Serena’s dominance is historically surpassed only by the likes of geriatric quarterback Tom Brady or basketball king LeBron James. But her career accomplishments also dwarf those of Brady and James, precisely because of what Serena had to overcome while also being unquestionably and undeniably herself. She showed the world that you don’t have to “get in where you fit in”. You can fight to carve out your own spot, and even if you lose – Serena’s career hasn’t been a straight streak – it’s better to go down as yourself than as someone trying to be someone else. She persevered in situations that neither Brady nor James could understand: she won the Australian Open 2017 in the eighth week of pregnancy? Returning to her sport after nearly dying from blood clots during childbirth? This is Serena. And of course, Serena Williams hasn’t just weathered the very white, often hostile, world of tennis. she thrived. The amount of toxic distraction she faced on the road to greatness is probably matched only by the likes of Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, and Jack Johnson. Her hard-fought success blew up the country club caves and inspired a new generation of young black girls to reach for a racquet because they believed the sport was now for them too. The public courtyards near my house are a nice example of this.

She also inspired the pen of author and poet Claudia Rankine, who wrote of the two siblings, “Serena and her big sister Venus were reminiscent of Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘I feel most colorful when I’m projected against a white background.’…Serena and Venus sometimes win, they sometimes lose, they were booed and cheered, and through it all and for all to see were these people angry that they were even there – graphite against a sharp white background.”

The unquestionable success against this “all white background” – in the tradition of Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Yannick Noah and Zina Garrison, but on a much larger scale – is precisely why Serena Williams and her body of work are so unique.

This rather goofy, staid list of the greatest athletes of the 20th century gave no indication of who came in like a whirlwind. Now Serena is the default and everyone else is looking up.

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