Serena Williams’ fellow players have been queuing up to praise her impact on and off the court ahead of her farewell to tennis.
Although she has not completely shut the door on future appearances, the US Open looks set to be her swansong, bringing the curtain down on a 27-year career.
The majority of the players at Flushing Meadows were not born when Williams made her professional debut in 1995 and have only known the sport with her as its dominant figure.
Naomi Osaka’s father was inspired by the success of Richard Williams in raising two champion daughters and followed his blueprint.
“I think that her legacy is really wide to the point where you can’t even describe it in words,” said Osaka.
“She changed the sport so much. She’s introduced people that have never heard of tennis into the sport. I think I’m a product of what she’s done. I wouldn’t be here without Serena, Venus, her whole family. I’m very thankful to her.
“I honestly think that she’s the biggest force in the sport. That’s not intentionally trying to make Federer or Nadal smaller. I just think she’s the biggest thing that will ever be in the sport.
“There’s definitely been a lot of barriers that I’m sure she had to fight to break down. We can now easily go through that because of her.”
Williams’ impact as a black pioneer in sport is a huge part of her legacy, and her influence is reflected in the diverse make-up of the game now, particularly among American players.
Williams was already a six-time grand slam singles champion when Coco Gauff was born, and the 40-year-old’s attitude on and off court has had a big impact on her teenage compatriot.
“Before Serena came along, there was not really an icon of the sport that looked like me,” said Gauff.
“So growing up I never thought that I was different because the number one player in the world was somebody who looked like me.
“Then, on a more personal level, I got to have a couple of conversations with her later on in life. I think it’s just the way that she handles herself. She never puts herself down. I love that she always elevates herself.
“Sometimes being a black woman in the world, you kind of settle for less. I can’t remember a moment in her career or life that she settled for less. I’m trying to learn to not settle for less.”
Williams has played only sparingly over the past few years, and it is hard to know what to expect when she takes on Danka Kovinic on Monday night.
Having achieved so many wins through sheer competitive desire, Williams is certainly not at Flushing Meadows just to soak up the plaudits, and she retains an aura, even if players now believe they can beat her.
Iga Swiatek, the latest woman to take over from Williams as world number one, is trying to learn from the American’s demeanour.
The young Pole said: “It’s still pretty surreal when I see her. I still feel like I’m just a kid who’s watching.
“Mentally, for sure she’s the one who’s going to show you how to use your position and how to kind of intimidate with being number one. I’m trying to do that. I don’t know if it’s going well or not. We’ll probably see in a couple of months, maybe next season.
“She’s the great example. Especially also with how she copes with having business and playing at the same time or being a mother and playing at the same time. It’s just amazing.
“I think it’s great that we have somebody like that in our sport who cleared the path and showed us that you can do anything. The sky’s the limit.”
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