Moonlight has long since graced the floor of Arthur Ashe Stadium, but Serena Williams pays the glare little mind. She will not be pushed off stage. On Friday, a night that began firmly balanced on the tightrope of victory has tumbled to within an eyelash of fate’s unforgiving mat. Williams let the first set slip on her racket. With the right dose of offensive steel, her challenger, the 46th-ranked Australian Ajla Tomljanović, should’ve been overwhelmed. But the American swung and grazed her opponent’s temple; four unforced errors, only one ace. She tried to recover. Out of something sweeter than spite, Williams managed to grab hold of the second set. It took 85 minutes. Then she went up a break in the third, and gave it right back. The bill was due, Serena had three dollars. She lost five games in a row.
This is how it ought to have ended, at the foot of the athletic afterlife, heels barbed, tendons tattered. But Serena, war-worn, 23-time champion, mother of one, does not bend. She digs her feet in. Once, then twice, then three times. And her people—sitting courtside, in the second deck, flowing over the top of the bowl that is this monstrous stadium—wail, and they gasp, and they love it. “Serena,” they chant in three separate parts—“Se-re-na”—they shake the floor, again, again, and again. She withstands four match points. She screams. She claws. The game stretches 14 minutes and 19 seconds. She loses on point 22, with a forehand return into the net. Even in the end, even as it dims, her light continues to shine.
The 2022 U.S. Open didn’t wrap on Friday, but its memory is sealed. No matter who wins, no matter how awesomely they might go about doing so, the moment Serena Williams (possibly?) announced her impending retirement—or evolution away from the sport—the tournament morphed into something greater. It belonged to her. You could feel it on the ground, in the form of attendance surges and ticket-price hikes, hashtag tributes and farewell videos, but especially in the general and pervading vibe that all this hubbub was not really up for discussion. That the present moment was as much in honor of Serena, as it was, justifiably, pulled into her orbit.
There is a kind of poetry in this: The most dominant athlete of our time exiting as she operated. Serena, just by existing, just by doing what she does, turns everything upside down once more. She is herself upheaval, even at the end, even as she floats off into the realm of sports eternity. It’s the inconvenient truth of her reign. She didn’t set out to inspire anyone or piss anyone off, to embody the fissures that line America’s social and political battlefields. She didn’t grow up wanting to be a role model, a martyr, or anything in between: She wanted only to never once yield a single point of tennis to anyone else on this earth. This was her edict. This was her beauty. To see her topple all those records, those moments, those walls—whatever it is, if it’s in her way, she will bend anything.
The godfather of Black tennis was first a football player who refused to use a helmet and became a doctor who refused to learn his place. His name was Robert Walter Johnson. His hair was long and then he went bald. Folks called him “Whirlwind” back when he was a halfback. It’s tricky trying to fit the whole of a history, or at least responsibility for a series of advancements, into one figure. Like golf, baseball, or any other game that white America tried to segregate, efforts to integrate U.S. tennis were multigenerational, diffuse, and collaborative. But there’s one person with ties to the biggest success stories before the Williams family, and that’s Dr. Johnson, the man who forged jewels on a clay court in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Starting in the mid-’40s, Johnson put together a team of pupils, whose living expenses, equipment, and travel costs he covered out of pocket. He had two cars and he’d use them to drive the groups to Black-run tournaments in D.C., North Carolina, New Jersey, and Michigan. He had a set of standards for what he’d eventually call his development teams. Players had to do yard work, weed his garden, maintain the bushes out front, prune his apple trees. And they had to follow his instructions on the court, both in form and behavior.
Before newbies were allowed to use racquets, they were resigned to broomsticks. They were taught to return all shots within two inches of the boundaries. There was to be “no racquet throwing, no hollering, no indication of discontent with officials’ calls.” It is through this regimen that Althea Gibson transformed herself from Harlem street fighter to leading lady of American tennis, that Arthur Ashe grew from exuberant Southern cub to internationally cool and affectless beau. The most vital of Johnson’s precepts shadowed all of his lessons. “I want you to be accepted without being a center of attraction,” Johnson told his pupils. “I want you to be able to take care of yourself in any situation where habits or manners are important, so that you don’t stand out.”
Thing is, Serena’s whole vibe been centripetal. After Johnson’s students, there were a handful of Black U.S. players. By the time the Williams sisters burst onto the scene there were just a few Black women ranked in the top 100 worldwide. Venus and Serena were ink in a pail of whiteout. They came in with their hair beaded and braided, and they didn’t move an inch when the sport tried to censure them for it.
Serena got older and her body filled out. Which ain’t a thing, until it is, and at the country club it often was. Various episodes included: the backlash to her catsuit at the 2002 U.S. Open; repeated implications by players and coaches that she and Venus were “masculine”; the time a white player walked out onto the court and impersonated Serena by stuffing towels beneath her shirt and skirt; a final catsuit kerfuffle in 2018, this time in the form of an outfit ban and a scolding from the French Tennis Federation president that she ought to “respect the game and the place.” For as long as Williams has existed within tennis she has been branded—by the media, by supposed friends and peers, by the controlling institutions of the sport itself—as aggressive, masculine, unattractive, and hyper-sexual, even as these tropes trip over one another in multiple angles.
And all that’s without even saying anything. Even as a teen, her confidence brimmed. Folks were always trying to chip away at it, a fact that her mother, Oracene, was keenly aware of. (“It’s like, ‘Squish them down, they can’t have that confidence,’” she said of the reaction to both Venus and Serena.) In 1999, a 17-year-old Serena famously said of then-all-time singles leader Steffi Graff, “No, I’m not intimidated by Steffi, I’ve never been intimidated by anyone.” Avoid the center of attention? She Crip walked on the lawn of the All England Club. Dr. Johnson’s racquet rule? Laughable. She went through them like Tic Tacs. Any representative-of-the-race-style complaint ban? Out of the question. At the 2004 U.S. Open, she was robbed repeatedly in the course of a heated loss, so she called a spade a spade, and got a belated apology and eventually the modern replay system to boot.
And yes, it might’ve gone overboard sometimes (an “I swear to god I’ll fucking take the ball and shove it down your fucking throat” here, a “You’re just unattractive inside” there). That’s the kind of behavior that’s lined the underbelly of many a great in and outside tennis. Connors called an umpire “an abortion.” McEnroe told a supervisor to “go fuck your mother” at the Australian Open. Is there anything more alpha, more Tiger, more Michael, more wonderfully and ridiculously competitive, than Williams, in the midst of yet another Grand Slam victory, reacting to a bad shot by throwing her arms back, arching her spine, and screaming “Fuck are you doing” into the sky?
Part of Serena’s genius—competitively, personally—is that she never can quite be anything but herself when she’s desperate. And she’s desperate every time she steps foot on a court. But another more conscious part of her genius is that she showed no shame in this, or any other segment of her being that she could not control. She sidestepped the trap, the one that predates her, Dr. Johnson, tennis itself. The American dilemma. Serena’s refusal to couch herself, to fit what the game was in order to be what the game is, recalls all the ancestors—breathing and not—who eyed down worlds meant to twist them and derived freedom from the revelation that there were places they could not be bent.
Althea Gibson is standing next to Arthur Ashe. Not his body but his stadium. And Althea’s in stone. Her likeness is carved onto a gray granite cube with sharp beige lettering at the base. This statue of Gibson receives little attention as wandering currents of patrons exit Billie Jean King National Tennis Center following (possibly) the last doubles match played together by Venus and Serena Williams. Even with a stretch of lighting at its feet, by the middle of the evening session the monument blends into the foreground.
In Flushing, Ashe may cast a larger shadow, but on the court, Gibson reached just as high. She grew up in Harlem, 10 miles from the headquarters of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association. She spent most of her Depression-era childhood on the streets, playing basketball. Gibson didn’t pick up tennis until her mid-teens. She built herself up, from local tournaments among the Harlem elite, to Robert Walter Johnson’s fledgling academy, to what few white-run events would have her. It took her white peers advocating publicly for Wimbledon and the U.S. championships to open their doors. She won five Grand Slam titles from 1956 to 1958, but still she was never fully embraced on tour. Fans sometimes hurled slurs at her from the safety of the stands. Gibson’s longtime doubles partner, a Jewish Liverpool native named Angela Buxton, initially teamed up with her because no one else wanted either of them as partners. Years later, at the unveiling of Gibson’s statue, Buxton was proud and appreciative that her friend was finally getting her due. There was just one problem. “You want an honest opinion?” Buxton said at the time. “Well, it doesn’t resemble her at all. Sorry to say that. I would have passed her any day and not known who it was.”
The monument is still a bit incongruous in person. Seeing her there, carved (however roughly) in granite, you can’t help but wonder what remembrance means to the person being remembered. How exactly they’d want to be etched in stone. Serena’s legacy might be as a trailblazer: the woman whose response to racist harassment at Indian Wells was to refuse the tournament her entry for 14 consecutive years. The activist who wouldn’t play in South Carolina while the Confederate flag flew. The champion of equal pay. The voice for the voiceless, particularly post-Ferguson.
There is value and honor in this. But where it resides—like the mark of her playing career—is in how she touched her people. In this way, Serena’s reign endures in Naomi Osaka’s serve and her strength outside the sport, through Coco’s on-court resolve and her off-court scruples. “Maybe it didn’t work out for me,” Williams phrased it after another perceived slight at the Open in 2018, “but it’s going to work out for the next person.” Even then she was a step ahead of everybody, even then she was calling her shots: It’s not how the patrollers of the game remember you that matters, it’s how your folks do. How you live on through them.
This is the part where we talk about the fact that Compton was a sundown town before it was a ghetto. That the Compton you know (of John Singleton wide angles and swap-meet slo-mos) and the Compton you don’t know (the one that’s too sharp, beautiful, infuriating to wrap the mind around) are both the product of white Californians thumbing the scales of fate. And by thumbing fate, we’re talking cross burnings and bombings and death threats and mobs scattered by shotgun shells (and absolutely no public “negro housing”). And then, when that fails, we’re talking blockbusting, property devaluation, labor shortages, tax-base erosion. In 1950 Compton is less than 5 percent Black; in 1960 it’s over 40 percent; in 1970, nearly three-quarters of the population is Black. They’ve got a word for that and it’s called sabotage. But sometimes things left to rot manage to sprout all the same.
This is the part where we discuss that without Compton there is no Serena as you know her. That she is an impossibility. That because the scales of fate were tipped, in April 1980, a Black congresswoman representing a virtually all-Black district secured $582,000 in funding to build a 3.3-acre park on the corners of Atlantic Avenue and Compton Boulevard—a park where a Louisiana exile named Richard Williams would teach his two daughters how to play tennis a decade later.
That all the roadblocks made a path but that only those two girls could walk it. America built a gate around Serena Williams and Serena Williams fitted herself through. The question we ought to ask is less what the hole in the gate means for others, and more whether it means that the gate is still a gate at all. And there she is again, just by her will, just by her presence, warping everything around her.
The slippery truth—the one that if you know, you know, and if you don’t, you don’t—is she made it out but never all the way. It’s how she loses a sister to a mistaken bullet and is called a “lost cause” and has an embolism and wins, and wins, and wins, 23 times over. How she finds out her sister’s killer was paroled minutes before playing a match. The trick of a place like Compton is that it sticks. Can’t get it off you. Then again, you might not want to.
And Serena will do what she wants.
It’s Y2K season and those beads from ’97 are back on your nearest plasma screens. Different girl this time, same family. Sixteen years old and out for title no. 1. Arthur Ashe Stadium opened two summers ago but this might as well be its christening. The teen’s up against the 1-seed and running her ragged. She’s louder visually and sonically. Range of movement quicker than something reptilian. She takes the first set in a breeze. Her power’s untapped; the aim is precise. Backhand winners at every angle, a forehand capable of reaching Row 305. She’s up 5-3 in Set 2 but blows match point twice. Others would fall apart. She digs in mid-tumble. Forces a tiebreaker, then like nothing, holds steady while her opponent starts to slide. She will not bend. Third time’s the charm. “Oh my god, I won,” she says, “oh my god.” This is an upset, a coronation, a new order in the making. Serena, shaper of worlds, has suddenly arrived.