‘I was just a kid with a dream and a racquet’: The evolution of Serena Williams

By Kathryn Wicks

Serena Williams, grand slam titles won between 1999 and 2017.Credit:Agencies

It all started last century with a girl from suburban Los Angeles, white beads through her hair and an aggressive – if not risky – style of play. The hairdo changed with the fashion over two decades, but the often brutal crushing of opponents never went out of style.

Serena Williams, the 40-year-old, 23-time grand slam champion, has announced her “evolution” to businesswoman and mum. The R-word is too hard to say. And it’s just as hard to hear.

“Maybe the best word to describe what I’m up to is evolution,” Williams writes in American Vogue. “I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me.”

The victories have been many, the defeats fewer, and some of those have not been without incident. Her losses to Sam Stosur and Naomi Osaka in US Open finals were mired in emotional outbursts that allowed less fancied opponents to triumph. What might have been.

No one who has played her a fair number of times has a winning record against Williams. Martina Hingis was the closest with a 7-8 record. Justine Henin got the better of her 4-3 in grand slams but not overall. Venus Williams has beaten Serena the most – 12 times. But Serena has won their head-to-heads 19 times.

Williams spent 319 weeks in total at No.1 including 186 consecutive weeks from 2013 to 2016. She has won 73 WTA titles, and amassed $US94.5 million in prizemoney.

The death of her half-sister Yetunde Price in 2003 and the birth of her daughter, Alexis Olympia, in 2017 meant she took extended periods out of the game.

She will play her final grand slam at the US Open later this month. It’s one last chance to equal the record of Australian Margaret Court.

Here is a look back at all of Williams’ grand slam wins.

1999 US Open

Serena Williams with her first US Open trophy.Credit:Getty Images

Williams, two weeks shy of her 18th birthday, took on world No.1 Martina Hingis in the US Open final after dispatching defending champion Lindsay Davenport in the semi-finals. Hingis, 18, who already had five grand slam titles, could only watch as Williams blasted 36 winners past her. Despite Hingis saving two match points in the second set, the American triumphed 6-3, 7-6 (7-4).

The Herald reported at the time: Only minutes after Williams had received her cup and the $US750,000 ($1.1 million) winner's cheque, the President, Bill Clinton, called. He jumped straight on the telephone from the APEC meeting in New Zealand and asked to speak to the victor.

"Congratulations. We're all very proud of you," he said.

“Wow!” replied a giggling Williams. “I never thought my day could get any better and now the President is on the phone talking to me. I’m stoked!”

Hingis conceded that Williams had overpowered her. “She hits it really hard, her serve was smoking,” Hingis said.

2002 French Open

Serena Williams wins her first French Open in 2002.Credit:AP

A string of quarter-final exits across 2000 and 2001 before a loss to sister Venus Williams in the 2001 US Open final preceded Serena Williams' first triumph in Paris. This time, after defeating top seed Jennifer Capriati in the semi-finals, she would turn the tables on Venus, winning 7-5, 6-3.

“I can’t believe it, it’s been so long since I won a slam – that I won at Roland Garros, I can’t believe it,” Serena said at the time. “It’s a little happiness and a sweet victory, but at least one of us won.”

But she immediately turned her attention to Wimbledon. “I always dreamed of winning Wimbledon,” Serena said. “I’ve always dreamed of winning the US Open and Wimbledon.”

It wouldn't remain a dream for long.

2002 Wimbledon

Serena Williams holds her trophy after winning her first Wimbledon title in 2002.Credit:AP

Williams again found her sister on the other side of the net on the second Sunday at Wimbledon. Venus was a two-time defending champion and the world No.1. The Age reported: “The match was played at a frantic pace, as the ball was bludgeoned back and forth, while little time was taken between points.”

Commentators described Serena as “hungrier” in her 7-6 (7–4), 6-3 victory.

“It’s hard to beat Venus here. She just wouldn’t stop running the balls down,” Serena said.

On Monday morning, Serena would be the world No.1 for the first time.

2002 US Open

On September 7, 2002, Serena Williams claimed her second US Open title, defeating Venus Williams.Credit:Reuters

Venus Williams arrived in New York the two-time defending champion but lost to Serena 6-4, 6-3.

A dejected Venus was reported by the Herald to have “wondered when (and maybe whether) she would be able to beat the younger Serena again, saying: ‘Everyone has their year and this is her year and next year could be her year, also.’

Serena, unlike her sister, said she was not at all tired of tennis. “I was tired of losing,” she said. “I’ve decided I’m not going to lose anymore.”

Serena was left ruing a sprained ankle that ruled her out of the 2002 Australian Open – leaving her one short of the coveted grand slam of tennis.

But she had drawn level with her sister on four major titles. Neither had made an Australian Open final.

Yet.

2003 Australian Open

Serena Williams with her Australian Open trophy alongside the Yarra River in Melbourne on January 25, 2003.Credit:Vince Caligiuri

In her 7–6 (7–4), 3–6, 6–4 victory over Venus, Williams completed the 'Serena slam', holding all four major trophies at the same time.

It was the fifth time a woman had achieved the feat – the other four were Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf.

Navratilova, who won six grand slam tournaments across two years, had also not achieved the calendar grand slam.

“A slam is a slam. It’s four in a row – the calendar thing, that’s just a number,” said Navratilova at the time of Williams’ win. “Four in a row is bloody amazing, no matter what sequence it comes in.”

Serena would extend her lead as world No.1, with Venus more than 1000 rankings points behind. World No.3 Kim Clijsters was another 2000 points behind Venus.

Venus and Serena would also collect the doubles crown. Navratilova couldn't see anyone toppling them for a while.

“Most of the other women, they don’t have the tools, they don’t have the variety to really throw them off,” she said. “If you compete head-to-head, just trying to go at them the way they go at you, that’s going to be a losing proposition most of the time.

“They’re just amazing physical specimens. Champions, both of them.”

2003 Wimbledon

Serena Williams, left, wins the Wimbedon title on July 5, 2003, defeating sister Venus in three sets.Credit:Reuters

The hunter had become the hunted. Despite dropping the first set Serena prevailed over Venus 4–6, 6–4, 6–2 in the final. Venus had struggled with abdominal and hip injuries – but hadn't told her sister.

The Herald reported: “With each win, her greatness is becoming harder to deny. “I’ve always wanted to play tennis to leave a mark and I think I’ll be able to leave a mark with what I’ve done in my career already, and I’m only 21,” Serena said.

Following unfounded accusations of predetermined results, the Williams family would begin to air concerns about racist treatment of the sisters.

2005 Australian Open

Serena Williams holds her Australian Open trophy on a cruise on the Yarra.Credit:Vince Caligiuri

After the tragedy of her sister Yetunde Price’s death in 2003 and injuries, Serena had missed the defence of her title in 2004 and dropped down the rankings. But a three-set win over the world No.1 Lindsay Davenport 2-6, 6-3, 6-0 restored her faith. “It’s been a long way coming back,” said Williams. “I’m almost to my goal.”

By the Monday, she would be the world No.2.

2007 Australian Open

Serena Williams at her 2007 success in Melbourne.Credit:Viki Lascaris

After time off for injuries, Serena had ended 2006 ranked No.95. A clinical 6–1, 6–2 rout of Maria Sharapova made Williams the first unseeded winner since 1978. “Even I didn’t expect to come in and win it all,” she said at the time. She would move up to No.14 in the world.

2008 US Open

Williams celebrates at the US Open.Credit:Reuters

Williams completed her climb back to No.1, for the first time in five years, with a 6-4, 7-5 victory over Jelena Jankovic for her third US Open title.

“I wasn’t even going for No.1. That’s like an added bonus. I was just playing and playing.”

2009 Australian Open

Serena Williams with her Australian Open trophy on January 31, 2009.Credit:Reuters

Serena Williams’ 6-0, 6-3 defeat of Dinara Safina took less than an hour. “I was just a ball boy on the court today,” Safina said of the 59-minute mismatch. Talk of the grand slam emerged quickly.

“I know I can win Wimbledon. I just love playing there; it’s such an easy tournament for me,” Williams said. “So I’ve just got to do the French. I’ve done it before so I can definitely do it again.”

2009 Wimbledon

Serena Williams with her 2009 Wimbledon trophy.Credit:Reuters

Win Wimbledon she did, but not before disappointment at Roland Garros, where she had been eliminated by the eventual winner, Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Williams beat her sister Venus 7-6 (7-3), 6-2 for her third Wimbledon title then took aim at the ranking system that kept her at world No.2 behind Safina.

“I think if you hold three grand slam titles maybe you should be No.1 but not on the WTA Tour obviously,” Serena said. “My motivation is maybe just to win another grand slam and stay No.2, I guess. It’s shocking. I’d rather definitely be No.2 and hold three grand slams in the past year than be No.1 and not have any.”

2010 Australian Open

On January 30, 2010, Serena Williams defended her Australian Open title.Credit:Vince Caligiuri

It took three sets, but Williams — again the world No.1 — defended her title, this time against Justine Henin on the comeback trail, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2. Williams was presented with her trophy by Margaret Court, and expressed pride in the fact that her 12 grand slam singles titles equalled those of the woman she called her “mentor”, American Billie Jean King. “I feel really special that I was able to tie Billie Jean King because in my heart of hearts, I’ve been going for it and I haven’t been able to quite achieve it. Billie Jean is a really big mentor of mine.”

2010 Wimbledon

Serena Williams with her winning Wimbledon plate in 2010. Credit:Getty Images

Williams' 6-3, 6-2 defeat of Russian Vera Zvonareva put her outright sixth among women's grand slam tournament winners – ahead of King but behind the 18 of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert; the 19 of Helen Wills Moody, the 22 of Steffi Graf, and Court's 24.

“I didn’t even know I was six on the list or seven or whatnot,” Williams said of the all-time list. “I’m telling you, I don’t think about that kind of stuff. My thing is I love my dogs; I love my family; I love going to the movies; I love reading; I love going shopping. It’s not on my list to be, you know, this.”

2012 Wimbledon

Serena Williams with her 2012 Wimbledon plate.Credit:Getty Images

Williams missed three grand slam tournaments across 2010-11 due to a haematoma and pulmonary embolism and, having lost the 2011 US Open final to Sam Stosur, it would take two years to add to her tally. Her three-set victory over Agnieszka Radwanska 6-1, 5-7, 6-2 was her fifth Wimbledon title, and would bring her equal with her sister’s record in London.

Williams was 30, and this was her 14th grand slam title. John McEnroe had seen enough. “I’ve seen them all – Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert was a machine, Monica Seles, Steffi Graf – but I believe we’re watching the greatest female player that’s ever played this game,” McEnroe said.

“It’s an elite, exclusive and amazing club that she’s part of. Enjoy it while you can because who knows what can happen in these next couple of years.”

2012 US Open

Williams enjoys her 2012 US Open triumph.Credit:Getty Images

Victoria Azarenka was within two points of victory but Williams found a way out, winning in New York 6–2, 2–6, 7–5. “I honestly can’t believe I won,” Williams said. “I really was preparing my runner-up speech because I thought, ‘Man, she’s playing so great’. I’m really shocked.”

2013 French Open

Williams cleans up on match point against Maria Sharapova to win the 2013 French Open.Credit:Getty Images

It had taken 11 years for Williams to once again triumph in Paris, this time against Maria Sharapova 6-4, 6-4.

Questions of retirement began to surface for the 31-year-old. “I definitely – I want to go out in my peak,” Williams said after grand slam title No.16. “That’s my goal. But have I peaked yet?”

2013 US Open

Williams holds aloft her 2013 US open trophy.Credit:Getty Images

The 2013 US Open was a rematch with Azarenka – but without the desperate finish, this time 7-5, 6-7 (8-6), 6-1.

It was her fifth US Open title, at which she became the oldest open-era women’s winner in New York – 293 days older than Margaret Court was when the Australian won in 1973.

“I feel great. I have never felt better,” Williams said. “I feel really fit. I can play a tournament like this, singles and doubles, with tough schedules. I haven’t felt like this in a number of years.

“I’m excited about the possibilities. I don’t know what can happen.”

2014 US Open

Serena Williams celebrates her win at the 2014 US Open.Credit:NYT

With her friend Caroline Wozniacki dispatched 6-3, 6-3, Williams would tally her sixth US Open title – a record. It also took her to 18 career grand slam titles – level with some of the game’s biggest names.

“I just could never have imagined that I would be mentioned with Chris Evert or with Martina Navratilova because I was just a kid with a dream and a racquet,” Williams said.

2015 Australian Open

Serena Williams with the Australian Open trophy in 2015.Credit:Joe Armao

Williams secured a hard-fought 6-3, 7-6 (7-5) win over Maria Sharapova before being presented with her trophy by Martina Navratilova, whose grand slam titles record she had just surpassed.

Talk of the elusive grand slam rose again.

“When I think of Paris, I don’t think about 20. I just think about winning there. It’s the one slam I don’t have more than two titles. I did so bad last year at Roland Garros and Wimbledon as well. So those are the two I really have my eye on.”

2015 French Open

Serena Williams with her French Open trophy, and her dog Chip, in 2015. Credit:AFP

It took more than two hours for Williams to topple Lucie Safarova 6-3, 6-7 (7-2), 6-2 in the final at Roland Garros after leading 6-3 4-1. “I would never have expected at this time in my career to win three grand slams in a row and no matter what happens at Wimbledon this, for me, is unbelievable,” she said.

2015 Wimbledon

Serena Williams, for the sixth time, with the spoils at Wimbledon. Credit:Reuters

A defeat of Garbine Muguruza 6-4, 6-4 earned Williams a second ‘Serena slam’, holding all four majors at the same time.

“I feel great,” Williams said. “I don’t feel old. I think in life I’m still pretty young. With new technology, new workouts, all this other stuff, the life of an athlete is changing and the longevity is becoming longer.”

The calendar grand slam wasn't to be, though, as she was eliminated in the semi-finals at the US Open by Karolina Pliskova.

2016 Wimbledon

Serena Williams with her seventh Wimbledon trophy, and her 22nd overall grand slam title. Credit:AP

A 7-5, 6-3 triumph over Angelique Kerber earned Williams a place alongside Steffi Graf with 22 majors. Talk of Williams reaching Margaret Court's record of 24 began in earnest. Once considered impossible, Williams still had the time and the inclination.

“It doesn’t get boring. As long as I’m winning, it doesn’t get boring,” the 34-year-old said.

2017 Australian Open

Serena Williams, right, with sister Venus, after beating her in the 2017 Australian Open final. Credit:Joe Armao

We wouldn’t learn until a few months later that Serena Williams had played the Australian Open pregnant, defeating her sister Venus 6-4, 6-4, for her 23rd grand slam title.

She paid tribute to her sister.

“I would really like to take this moment to congratulate Venus. She is an amazing person,” Serena said. “There is no way I would be at 23 without her. There is no way I would be at one without her.

“She is my inspiration, she is the only reason I am standing here today.”

By Monday, she would be world No.1 again.

She announced her pregnancy that April, and told a TED Talk she had every intention of returning to the tour. “I’m not done yet,” Williams said. “My story isn’t over.”

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