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Serena Williams’ undying legacy: Our Sportsperson of the Year

Serena Williams helped set new attendance records as she advanced to the third round of the US Open in September. (Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

For years, it felt like Serena Williams was going to be able to play professional tennis forever. Her advantages in natural talent and experience provided a well that had never fully run dry, even in the years after the birth of her daughter, Olympia, as a 24th Grand Slam title continued to elude the tennis star.

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want that record. Obviously I do,” Williams wrote in her retirement announcement — though she says she doesn’t like that word, preferring to call the next stage of her career an “evolution.”

The final chapter of her illustrious career ended in New York City in early September, marking perhaps the most high-profile retirement in a year that said goodbye to a number of women’s sports icons. But in perfect Williams fashion, she wouldn’t commit to never playing again, and if history is a living thing, it’s difficult to see her exit as a final parting.

There is no real goodbye when Williams’ handprint will be on the sports world forever, and that makes Williams our 2022 Sportsperson of the Year.

The kid from Compton was introduced to the sport of tennis under sister Venus’ wing, only to emerge as the greatest of all time. The 23-time Grand Slam winner was never anything less than her full self, battling both racism and sexism in addition to her opponents on the other side of the court.

Serena Williams won her first U.S. Open as a 17-year-old in 1999. (Jamie Squire/Allsport)

The ease with which Serena handled adversity made her ultimate concession to her final opponent — time — a surprise. At the 2021 Australian Open, Williams looked like she could finally make the push for a record-tying 24th Grand Slam, in a Flo-Jo inspired outfit that paid tribute to her own legend in real time.

But when she left the court after a semifinal defeat to eventual champion Naomi Osaka, the question of whether this was her final appearance in Australia naturally arose. At the time, the notion felt almost ridiculous. Williams was a Grand Slam semifinalist and arguably the second-best player in the entire tournament. And yet, it was the last time she would make it deep into the second week of a Grand Slam.

With Williams’ announcement coming prior to the U.S. Open, fans got to watch Williams play with the understanding of what every point meant in its entirety. Her daughter sat in the stands wearing the same iconic beads in her hair that became Serena and Venus’ calling card in the early days of their careers. The Slam broke attendance records, with an adoring public realizing that it was now or never. Fans poured into the stands and sat on the grass outside the grandstand, simply wanting to be near a Serena Williams match for the last time.

And by the nature of a knockout tournament, Williams’ progression through the Open extended not only her summer in New York, but also her identity as an active professional tennis player. Every rally, every ace, every break point saved and serve held felt like life and death, and the world, for one week, lived those moments with her.

Williams chose to compete in the doubles tournament with Venus, which ironically might have influenced her energy levels in singles and what ended up being the final match of her professional career. Williams never quite matched the 2021 fitness levels she showed in Australia in 2022, but her gifts as a tennis player always seemed to supersede the inevitable.

During that run, Williams reminded us how distinctly she could flip a game, returning the ball with an un-hittable velocity and hitting clean shots in clutch moments. Williams’ aces are the stuff of legend, used to get out of a bind as frequently as to close out a win. She’d face a double or triple break point, and with one serve after another, she’d come right back.

With every push and every “COME ON,” it was easy to believe that Williams could do this forever. She played two of the longest matches of her career in her final year as a professional, first at Wimbledon and again at the U.S. Open. Every point came with adversity — without the control to close things out quickly, but with a sense of purpose that never let up.

“I wouldn’t be Serena if there wasn’t Venus, so thank you, Venus,” she said, with tears in her eyes at Arthur Ashe Stadium. What went unspoken was the understanding that, without Serena, there wouldn’t be so many of the challengers who stood up to the greatest over the years.

Naomi Osaka, Williams’ foil at both the 2018 U.S. Open and the 2021 Australian Open, said, “I think I’m a product of what she’s done. I wouldn’t be here without Serena.” She has also openly related to the struggles of being a prominent Black athlete in the sport of tennis, reliving Venus and Serena’s experience of harassment at Indian Wells as recently as this year.

At Arthur Ashe in September, Williams’ final opponent, Ajla Tomljanovic, played the match of her life. The two women, 12 years apart in age, fought for an advantage for over three hours. Williams, at times, looked brilliant, but she struggled to hold onto a lead and then kept fighting back when her serve failed her, forcing a decisive third set.

The end of that set felt like it lasted a lifetime. She fought back from facing five different match points, doing just enough to delay the inevitable. Her competitive career ended on an extended deuce, as she fought not for the match itself, but just one more return, one more clean hit of a tennis ball on the grandest of stages. We would have sat in that moment with her forever.

“I’d like to think that I went through some hard times as a professional tennis player so that the next generation could have it easier. Over the years, I hope that people come to think of me as symbolizing something bigger than tennis,” Williams wrote in her retirement announcement.

Within her undying legacy, she’s never really going away.

Retirements in sports are unlike those in any other industry. An iconic athlete gets a chance to restart as something new and rejoin a community with a fresh perspective. The sports world will only benefit from the new, evolved Serena Williams, but there is also sadness in this particular ending.

“I’m going to miss that version of me, that girl who played tennis,” Serena wrote.

So will we.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

Serena Williams is ‘super interested’ in owning a WNBA team

Serena Williams speaks on stage during keynote conversation at 2019 conference in San Jose, California
The tennis icon is all in on women's sports — and the WNBA is right on her heels. (Photo by Marla Aufmuth/WireImage via Getty Images)

Could Serena Williams co-own a WNBA team in the near future? 

Speaking with CNN on Monday, Williams expressed her interest in that potential — as well as the mounting enthusiasm for women’s sports around the world. 

"I think women’s sport is having a moment that it should have always had," Williams said. "I feel like tennis has had its moment. It’s international, and it’s huge, and it’s always gonna be there.

"Now it’s time to lift up other sports — women’s soccer, women’s basketball — there’s so many other sports that women do so great, let’s put it on that platform. Women’s basketball is getting there, and it’s arrived."

When asked if she had any interest in adding a WNBA team to her roster of ownership stakes, the tennis great welcomed the idea. "I absolutely would be," Williams said. "With the right market, I would definitely be super interested in that."

"There is no risk — women’s sport is exciting," Williams added, citing the 2024 NCAA women's tournament's record-breaking viewership as evidence. "People are realizing that it is exciting to watch, so it's an overly safe bet."

Williams may not need to wait long to act on that bet. On Monday, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said that she is "pretty confident" the league will expand to 16 teams — up from its current 12 — by 2028. 

The goal, she said, is to reach 14 by 2026. Oakland's Golden State is already on track to launch the league's 13th team in 2025. The move will mark the WNBA's first new franchise since the Atlanta Dream debuted in 2008.

"It's complex because you need the arena and practice facility and player housing and all the things," Engelbert said at a press conference before Monday's WNBA draft. "You need committed long-term ownership groups, and so the nice thing is we're getting a lot of calls."

Engelbert went on to name a few of the cities behind those calls, saying that the league continues to engage in discussions with Philadelphia, Toronto, Portland, Denver, and Nashville, as well as South Florida.

"These can either take a very long time to negotiate or it can happen pretty quickly if you find the right ownership group with the right arena situation," Engelbert added.

The Commissioner's 16 team goal is not only good news for WNBA fans, it's great news for current and future WNBA players. At 12 teams with just 12 roster spots each, the league is held to a total of 144 players for any given season. An abundance of fresh talent coming up through the NCAA ranks has put pressure on the organization to make room for more worthy competitors, and four additional teams might be just the ticket.

Hellen Obiri claims back-to-back Boston Marathon wins

Hellen Obiri, winner of the women's division of the Boston Marathon, poses with the Boston Marathon trophy
Hellen Obiri, winner of the 2024 Boston Marathon's women's division, poses with her trophy. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Kenyan runner Hellen Obiri won the 128th Boston Marathon on Monday, becoming the first woman to claim back-to-back titles since 2005.

She clocked a total time of 2 hours, 27 minutes, and 37 seconds in a women's division that race organizers described as "historically fast."

"Defending the title was not easy," Obiri said. "Since Boston started, it's only six women [that have repeated]. If you want to be one of them, you have to work extra hard. And I'm so happy because I'm now one of them — I'm now in the history books."

A two-time Olympic silver medalist and two-time 5000m world champion, Obiri is a clear favorite in this summer’s Paris Olympics.

“Last year I was pretty familiar to the marathon, but this year my training was perfect — we trusted everything we were doing,” Obiri said. “When we won last year, of course I was saying I’m going to win this one. Winning is like love. It’s something precious to me.”

Though, she wasn’t without a challenge. Fellow Kenyan Sharon Lokedi finished a mere eight seconds behind Obiri. Edna Kiplagat, who won the 2017 Boston Marathon, completed the podium sweep for Kenya with a third place finish.

Emma Bates, the race's top American finisher, came in 12th.

Obiri wasn't alone in making Boston Marathon history this year. The repeat champ walked away with $150,000 in total prize money allocated from a purse that topped $1 million for the first time ever. 

College rivals Angel Reese, Kamilla Cardoso drafted to the Chicago Sky

Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso competing at the NCAA SEC Conference Tournament Championship
Once rivals, Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso are now teammates. (Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports)

The Chicago Sky made a splash in Monday night’s WNBA draft, taking Kamilla Cardoso and Angel Reese in the first round. 

South Carolina’s Cardoso, who was the 2024 Final Four Most Outstanding Player, went third to the Sky. The day before, the team had swapped picks with the Minnesota Lynx to land the No. 7 pick as well, which they used on Reese, the 2023 Final Four MOP.

Now, the two will team up in Chicago after battling each other in both college and high school

"She’s a great player, and I’m a great player. Nobody's going to get no rebounds on us," Cardoso joked afterwards, while Reese expressed excitement about playing under new Sky head coach Teresa Weatherspoon.

"Being able to be a Black woman and as a head coach, and everything she's done at the NBA level, I just knew everything they were bringing to the table," Reese said of the Sky. "Player development is something that I was looking for and they looked for in me. I'm super excited for this move."

Former NBA star and Chicago Sky co-owner Dwayne Wade welcomed the pair to Chicago.

“The foundation is set,” he wrote.

The Sky have entered re-building mode after winning a WNBA title in 2021. This offseason, they traded franchise cornerstone Kahleah Copper to the Phoenix Mercury for a package that included the No. 3 picked used on Cardoso.

Now, Cardoso and Reese will be looking to jump-start the team's return to contention.

Watch: Iowa star Kate Martin’s draft moment goes viral

Kate Martin poses with Cathy Engelbert after being drafted by the Las Vegas Aces during the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York
2nd-round pick Kate Martin poses with Cathy Engelbert Commissioner of the WNBA at the 2024 draft. (Photo by Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images)

Former Iowa captain Kate Martin was in the audience during Monday night’s draft when she was selected 18th overall by the Las Vegas Aces. 

The moment quickly went viral, as Martin was in the crowd to support superstar teammate Caitlin Clark going No. 1 overall, and was not one of the 14 players invited to the draft.

"To be honest, I don't think I'd have the type of career if I don't have a teammate like Kate," Clark said about Martin leading up to the 2024 national championship game. "She's been one that has had my back. She holds me accountable. I hold her accountable. But I think at the same time, me and Kate are wired so similarly that we get each other on a different level."

Martin being drafted marks the first time that Iowa has had two players selected in the same WNBA draft since 1998.

“She's one of the best leaders I've been around," Clark said. "She wants the best for her teammates. She's one of the most selfless people."

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said Monday that she is “so proud” of her player, “because her dreams came true.”

"She has been such a big part of our program over the last six years,” she said. “Her efforts did not go unnoticed by her peers. I wish Kate all the success with this next step.”

Martin said afterward that she’s “excited for the opportunity” and to showcase her “really good” work ethic. Helping Iowa to back-to-back NCAA title games, Martin finished her college career with 1,299 points, 756 rebounds and 473 assists.

“There are a lot of emotions right now,” Martin said in an interview on ESPN. “I’m really happy to be here. I was here to support Caitlin, but I was hoping to hear my name called. All I wanted was an opportunity and I got it. I’m really excited.”

While Martin was watching from the crowd, her family was watching from back home.

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