I remember when we first started hearing about Venus Williams, when as a teenager she started winning major tournaments, and people were all delighted that a poor kid from the same neighborhood as NWA was taking apart the lily-white culture of professional tennis. (Well, some people were less than delighted, but history is proving those people to be horribly wrong, and I’ve resolved to stay positive this week, so we can safely ignore those whom history will leave behind.)
In interviews, people would ask Venus how she got to be so good, and how good she thought she could become, and she would often reply, “I expect to win a lot of majors, but my little sister is going to be better than I am.”
At that point, no one even knew that Serena Williams existed yet. We know now.
Her tennis exploits rank with the greatest of all time, and even if she decided to retire today (and there’s no sign that she’s done), she’d rank right up there with the titans of the sport, along with Billie Jean King, Bill Tilden, Martina Navratilova, Rod Laver, Roger Federer, Chris Evert, and Steffi Graf. “Best athlete ever” is close to unmeasurable, but it’s a hell of a fun conversation to have, and she gets to be a part of that discussion. (Who belongs in that list, anyway?)
Certainly, no one playing today can touch her, and she’s earned every plaudit she’s received, and then some. She’s going to be an icon for the rest of her life at this point, not just for what she’s accomplished, but for how she’s done it. She’s a multifaceted and versatile player, but she leads with her astonishing strength, and then her grace and touch follow close behind. That’s not the traditional definition of “ladylike,” but you know, that definition was never accurate to start with, and it sure as hell isn’t now.
As she enters the twilight of her playing days, she’s branched out. She’s doing a little acting, she’s been designing clothes through her Aneres line (that’s “Serena” backwards), she’s written a book, she & Venus both own a piece of the Miami Dolphins, and her list of charity work is as long and varied as anyone’s.
If being a great athlete is solely about winning matches, then Serena has few peers, and no superiors. If it’s about the sum of a person’s life, she only grows from there. Happy birthday, Serena.