When Venus Williams burst into the world of tennis by reaching the 1997 US Open final, nobody had a better seat on Arthur Ashe Arena than her younger sister. Serena watched as her sister’s first steps from the tennis courts of Compton into the upper echelons of the country club sport were met with resistance and scorn. As the world fixated on Venus and the bombast of their father, Richard, Serena took her first steps to relatively less fanfare and her rise was seamless. In November 1997, at 16 years old, Serena, ranked 304, travelled to Chicago where she won her first main-draw match and then became the lowest-ranked player to defeat two top-10 players, ousting No 7 Mary Pierce and No 4 Monica Seles.
The 1990s were a period of development for Williams as she grew into her body and tested her strength. While her sister’s height and long limbs allowed her to produce power early in her career, Serena was smaller and relatively underpowered. She made up for it with her use of angles and intelligent point construction, two defining facets of her game that remain. She rose steadily up the rankings and after facing Venus for the first time, in the second round of the Australian Open, she finished a consistent 1998 ranked 20th.
Venus started 1999 ranked in the top five and the world waited for her to finally make her move at the majors, but instead it was Serena who left her mark by marching through Seles, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis in consecutive matches at Flushing Meadows to win her first grand-slam title at 17 years old. As Serena lifted her trophy, Venus sat aghast in the crowd as her younger sister finally stepped out from her shadow.
This was decade Serena showed all her potential on the court but she could never fully produce it for a sustained period. By 2002, Serena had matured and grown into a complete player with her service technique smoothed out, her weapons in full flight and her movement flowing.
Two and a half years since her maiden grand slam, she won her second title at the French Open, beating Venus in the final. It would mark the first of four consecutive grand-slam titles for Serena – dubbed the Serena Slam – defeating Venus in each and replacing her at No 1 as they fulfilled the proclamations of their father.
Their success would transform women’s tennis for good, forcing their competitors into the gym in pursuit of moving faster, hitting bigger and matching the stratospheric level of the sisters. Only a freak injury could stop Serena. After defending her Wimbledon title in 2003, an awkward dance move in heels at a Los Angeles club led to a partial tear in a quadriceps tendon.
During her long recovery from knee surgery, Serena’s sister, Yetunde Price, was killed in September 2003. The trauma led to depression and tennis became secondary as she lost fitness, played infrequently and won one slam between 2003 and 2007. But comebacks have become the currency of her career and in 2007 she won another major. Williams showed up at the Australian Open ranked 84th, still improving her fitness and with the world doubting her chances. Instead, she battled through six seeded players in succession, eviscerating Maria Sharapova 6-1, 6-2 to win the title.
Serena finished the decade with a burst of excellence, winning her 11th grand slam at Wimbledon 2009. But the turbulence of her 2000s was underlined by the off-court events that glued the decade together.
After receiving racist abuse from the Indian Wells crowd in 2001, she would boycott the tournament for 14 years. In 2004, errant line calls by the umpire Mariana Alves in her US Open quarter-final loss to Jennifer Capriati would catalyse the arrival of Hawk-Eye line technology in tennis and also her rising anxiety at the US Open.
Williams finished the decade at the US Open against Kim Clijsters, unloading on a lineswoman after being called for a foot fault at a crucial point of the match.
Serena Williams started 2010 with titles at the Australian Open and Wimbledon and a return to No 1. When a journalist asked if she would still be competing in 10 years, she was clear: “If I am, I want you to personally take me off and escort me off the court,” she said. “There’s no way I need to be out here at 38.”
Her perspective began to change later that year when she was sidelined after severing tendons in a foot. In March 2013, a blood clot in her injured foot travelled to her lung and caused a pulmonary embolism, leaving her fighting for her life in hospital.
After her close brush with death, Serena returned resolved to unearth as much potential as she could. She worked herself into her best shape for years and finally embraced the entire tour rather than cherry picking the best events.
Williams returned to No 1 in 2013 as the continued improvement of her serve marked it as one of the most dominant shots in the history of the sport, offering her game increased efficiency in her advancing years.
Williams’s pursuit of history late in her career has had some unintended side-effects, dramatically increasing the pressure with each tournament. No period underlined this quite like 2015 when she captured her second Serena Slam before heading into the US Open chasing the grand slam.
That was the moment she rose from a star athlete to a cultural icon, as celebrities descended on Flushing Meadows simply to be seen in her presence, but it was also the site of one of her biggest failures as she spectacularly fell to Roberta Vinci in the semi-final.
She recovered to produce one more stunning result by winning the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant. She gave birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia, that September but it was a complicated childbirth that included a second near-death experience stemming from a pulmonary embolism.
Since then she has reached four grand-slam finals: Wimbledon and the US Open in 2018 and 2019. It is an astounding achievement for an ageing champion so soon out of childbirth, but the consequence of her success is that nothing but victory is acceptable.
Williams has won two International events, a tournament category on the WTA calendar, in her career. When she won in Bastad, Sweden, in 2013, her celebration was a simple fist pump. On Sunday, she won her second in Auckland and she celebrated by lifting her hands to the sky and shouting in jubilation. It was a reflection of how much she is still committed to the sport and, after four lost finals, how important is the sensation of finishing a tournament without losing.
Williams is still playing at an extremely high level, but mentally it will only get tougher. She lost those four grand-slam finals without winning a set. Age brings a greater understanding of the size of these achievements, which makes it all so much more difficult; she knows that she will retire soon and that her opportunities are finite. The question is whether she can take them.