Though Serena Williams is widely regarded as tennis’ GOAT—transcendent enough to wear a Virgil Abloh-designed tennis tutu, or designer Nikes with 400 hand-set diamonds that spell out QUEEN on the court—tennis fans, experts, and event organizers somehow still weren’t sipping the Satorade on the first night of the US Open.
To put it frankly: The whole internet expected her to lose.
The winner of 23 Grand Slam singles titles over the course of 27 years, Williams announced her retirement from tennis in a self-penned Vogue essay earlier this month. She had made the unspeakably difficult decision to step away from the sport that made her a star, she explained, in order to focus on her family and venture capital firm Serena Ventures, which she says has raised $111 million to date. But first, she’d tackle the US Open in New York one last time—and only then would she draw the curtains on one of the sporting world’s most inspirational stories: the one Serena wrote.
Within the 24 hours after Williams announced her retirement, StubHub said that they’d sold eight times more tickets than the daily average and that 11% of the total number of tickets sold for the event were purchased during that period (we call this “the power of Serena”). The US Open is generally a boozy, star-studded event, but last night’s stands were filled with even more perfectly moist faces than normal: Laverne Cox, Rebel Wilson, Hugh Jackman, President Clinton, Spike Lee, Vera Wang, and Anna Wintour, to name a few.
But while the air around Williams’ last US Open appearance was characterized by unrelatable beachy glamor, a farewell tour fit for a royal (as executed by an apparently dogged PR team), and a Gatorade ad narrated by Beyonce herself, haters and under-estimators still navigated their way out of the pits of hell to show up in droves to predict a loss in the first round. Despite all the noise, Williams, being herself, defeated her opponent Danka Kovinic on Monday night, advancing to the next round.
Of course, the collective cringing was far from over. Following the match, US Open organizers presented a special tribute to Williams, which included a few words from Billie Jean King, fans spelling out “WE [HEART] SERENA” in the stands, and a speech from Gayle King, who remarked, “She has changed the game in so many ways.”
And she has! Serena deserves all of this fanfare and more. I get that as an event planner faced with celebrating the legacy of an athlete as formidable as Serena, you’d want to be prepared for all possible outcomes, including a first-round loss. But the US Open rolled out the blue carpet for Williams too early—and I’ll be damned if that isn’t perfect symbolism for her entire career.
In a field that favors lanky white men, Williams was constantly subjected to sometimes subtle, sometimes overtly hostile sexism. She was labeled as prone to “meltdowns,” for which she was fined $17,000, and criticized for opting out of tournaments to protect her mental and physical health. Meanwhile, Williams continued to pass the records of the greats, winning the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant and returning to a Grand Slam final just nine months after she gave birth to her daughter by C-section and suffered a pulmonary embolism.
Make no mistake, the fact that Serena Williams is a full-bodied Black woman in a field forever reluctant to embrace her has everything to do with the constant dismissal of her talent. Sure, she’s 40 years old and approaching the end of her career. But her results show that she has consistently found strategies to architect those stunning upsets and comebacks that have defined her athleticism. It is one thing to navigate femininity in a man-made arena that kisses the feet of masculinity; it is another thing entirely to have to navigate Blackness on top of it. And yet, Serena Williams has done all of that and more. Here’s to hoping the US Open has a tribute prepared for her not just the first night, but every night she does what she does best: win.