Serena was a fighter to the end
OPINION: Serena Williams's last match showed her toughness and her post-match interview gave a clue to what's next
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
Near the end of Serena Williams’ last match in the U.S. Open she fought off five match points. She fought them off by playing aggressively, slugging forehands and putting every ounce of her spirit into every shot. Often, when down match point, players will become conservative and defensive, hitting the ball lighter and hoping not to miss. But not Serena. Not last night. She continued to fight with every fiber of her being, swinging hard and fast, a warrior to the end.
In a post-match interview with reporters, she said one of the things she was most proud of in her career was being a fighter. “I’ve never given up, and I certainly wasn’t giving up tonight.” She showed that grit and determination in her last match. Where some GOATs in other sports have finished their athletic career as a mere fragment of their best selves, Serena showed that even at 40 she’s still able to compete with the world’s best players.
She still has one of the world’s greatest serves It can still win her lots of points, and her groundstrokes remain some of the hardest in the world. She can make the ball seem to fly. She’s still able to get to the net and hit winners. She can still compete with the twentysomethings when she’s motivated. But like many of us, she said, the last few years have caused her to reflect on her life.
In a small interview room about 11 p.m. and after more than two hours on the court, 20 reporters peppered her with a single question each. Serena said that quarantine prompted her to rethink life.
“When COVID happened,” she said, “We got to see what our lives were like without having to go to the gym every day.” That felt good, she said. She also talked about her daughter, Olympia. “I’m ready to be a mom and explore a different version of Serena,” she said. “I’m a super hands-on mom. I’ve been with her every day of her life except for two. But my career is really hard for her.” She cried a bit but said, “It’s not sad tears.”
Serena’s career has meant so much to so many of us. In her last match, we saw the aggressive power player we’ve loved all these years. We saw the big overpowering serves that clocked in at 115 mph or 120 mph and sometimes faster. We saw her move forward into the court and take lobs out of the air with swinging forehands – that stroke that she and Venus made into one of their signatures.
We saw her crush approach shots and hit overheads so forcefully that it seemed like she might destroy the ball. The “we” who witnessed all of this in the stadium included many celebrities – Spike Lee and Gayle King and Russell Wilson and Ciara – as well as thousands of people who love Serena and screamed for her throughout a three-set match that lasted more than two hours. In the press conference, she said, “The crowd wanted to push me past the line.” She clearly appreciated their love and felt it buoy her.
I found the match extremely nerve-wracking. She played an inspiring brand of tennis, and she was definitely strong enough to win. But I watched with an overwhelming fear that our Queen would lose, and her career would end and we would never have another Serena match.
I’ve been watching her for so long, back to when she was a teenager with beads, hoping and threatening to become a champion. Back then, we marveled at her fierce grit and determination. We were in awe of her serve even then. On this last night of her career, as she valiantly swatted away five match points, she reminded us of the character and the fighting spirit we love. But then, on the sixth match point, she missed and it all ended.
They played Tina Turner’s upbeat “Simply The Best,” but I couldn’t help but feel sad. I’ve watched and loved this woman and her family for more than two decades. She has been a part of our lives. She has been a hero. She has been a thrill to watch. She has shown us what it is to fight and win over and over and over again. And now, all that’s over.
No more massive serves. No more thrilling comebacks. No more crip walking at Wimbledon. In her last post-match interview, she gave a special thanks to her big sister, Venus. “She’s the only reason why Serena existed,” she said, which made me sadder.
This epic career was a family triumph. They did it together – father Richard, mother Oracene, Venus and Serena, as well as their sisters. They trained, planned, sacrificed and battled. And they changed tennis forever.
Now their long story is over. What will Serena do next? She said she’ll do some karaoke, and she’ll play with her daughter. Will she disappear from tennis? She may not play, but is she gone gone? “I can’t imagine not being in tennis,” she said.
The game has meant so much to her. But what will she do? “I don’t know what that is yet.” She was asked what she was most grateful for. “I’m so grateful I have had this moment and that I’m Serena.”
Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U. Look out for his upcoming podcast Being Black In the 80s.
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