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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.