#281 21.2.2021

Happy Sunday!

After Tom Brady won his seventh Super Bowl a couple of weeks ago, an age-old debate was revived: who is the greatest athlete of all time (GOAT)? Brady’s name, alongside Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, Wayne Gretzky and Muhammad Ali, was dropped often.

  • But here at The GIST, one name stands above the rest. Today we’re bringing you the case for the one and only Serena Williams.

Quote of the Day

We all know who the real number one is. Quite frankly, I’m the best in the world.

— Serena Williams, on herself, back in 2009. Need we say more?

Serena Williams putting on and adjusting crown on her head on tennis court
Source: WTA/Giphy

🐐 What GOATs are made of

Serena Williams on court swinging in her iconic catsuit
Source: Christian Hartmann/Reuters

The GIST: A GOAT is an athlete who remains consistently successful and competitive over a prolonged career, in a sport that requires mental and physical toughness, agility, stamina, hard work and dedication. One who rises above adversity to showcase their talents on the world stage and emerges as the best amongst their peers.

  • Of course, the GOAT debate is totally subjective, but to us, there’s no one else who checks all these boxes quite like Serena.

🎾 Started from the bottom

Young Serena swinging during tennis match early in her career
Source: Michael S. Green/AP Photo

The youngest of five sisters, Serena Williams was born in 1981 and spent her early childhood in the city of Compton, California. Looking to set Serena and her older sister Venus on a safe and lucrative path, their father, Richard, took up tennis so he could teach his daughters the game, starting when Serena was just three years old.

  • Now let’s call a spade a spade: tennis is an elitist sport. It’s classist, expensive and predominantly white. But that never deterred Richard. Despite public, run-down courts and active gang violence, the Williams sisters honed their craft against all odds.
  • The family eventually moved to Florida, where the sisters trained with a professional academy before Serena turned pro in 1995 at the age of 14...two years earlier than her parents wanted. Oops!

🙌 The highs

Young Serena holding trophy close to her face and smiling big
Source: Richard Drew/AP

Serena notched her first professional win in 1999 at the Open Gaz de France, and her first major win came later that year at the U.S. Open. Over the past 22 years, she’s won 73 pro tournaments, and with her 2020 Auckland Open win, she became the first tennis player in the Open Era to record wins in four different decades.

  • Among the titles are 23 Grand Slams, the most by any player in the Open Era, made up of seven Australian Opens, three French Opens, seven Wimbledons and six U.S. Opens.
  • She’s won four straight majors twice (in 2002–2003 and 2014–2015), completing what is now known as the “Serena Slam.”

And she's not just a singles star. Alongside Venus, Serena has racked up 14 Grand Slam doubles titles, and three Olympic gold medals in doubles tennis (the Williams sisters each have a singles gold, too).

  • Serena’s also been named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year and AP’s Female Athlete of the Year (five times), has received 10 ESPY Awards for Best Female Tennis Player of the Year and was awarded the NAACP Image Award – President's Award.

👎 The lows

Up close shot of Serena looking down with a dark background
Source: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

It hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows for Serena, though. And, to us, it’s how she’s dealt with adversity that truly sets her apart.

  • While sports injuries are common for athletes, Serena has dealt with medical ailments outside of the tennis norm. She first suffered a pulmonary embolism in 2011, and her history of blood clots led to a nearly fatal episode following the birth of her daughter in 2017.

She’s also faced great personal tragedy. In 2002, just a few years into her blossoming career, Serena’s older sister Yetunde was killed, an innocent bystander in a gang-related shooting.

On top of all that, Serena has long been subjected to bullying, racism and sexism. Notably, following racist attacks in 2001, the Williams sisters boycotted the Indian Wells tournament for 14 years (Serena eventually returned in 2015 as part of a partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative).

Serena has not had an easy road, but as she herself once said, “I really think a champion is defined not by their wins but by how they can recover when they fall.”

🔢 By the numbers

Serena holding trophy in one hand and her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. in the other while posing for picture on the court
Source: Chris Symes/Photosport via AP

9: How many weeks pregnant Serena was with daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. when she won (!!!) the 2017 Australian Open — her last Grand Slam win to date.

17: How old she was when she won her first Grand Slam, the 1999 U.S. Open.

35: How old she was when she last held the No. 1 world ranking, making her the oldest woman to do so.

319: The number of weeks she’s spent at number one over the course of her 26-year career (that’s nearly six years in total).

362: The number of Grand Slam matches she’s won, a record she shares with Roger Federer.

💃🏿 Off the court

Source: Evan Agostini/AP

Her off-court accomplishments probably don’t add to her “greatest athlete” title, but we can’t not mention them. On top of her tennis prowess, she’s an accomplished business woman, activist, philanthropist, writer, entertainer, wife and mom.

🔮 The future

Serena Williams waving to the crowd at the Australian Open
Source: WTA/Twitter

Serena’s long and illustrious career may soon be coming to an end. Since returning from her 13-month maternity leave (which she revolutionized, BTW) in 2018, Serena has continued to play extremely well, but has yet to claim her elusive 24th Grand Slam.

  • Though the 39-year-old made it to last week’s Australian Open semifinals, her post-match exit from the court and her strong reaction to a question about retirement seemed to hint that she may be starting her goodbyes. We’re crying too.
  • Whether she makes it to 24 majors, wins yet another Olympic gold, or doesn’t, Serena is the greatest athlete of all time. Period.

Learn more

📗 What to read:

We’ve only scratched the surface here. For more on Serena’s start in tennis and her early career, her autobiography, My Life: Queen of the Court, is a must-read.

  • And if you’re in the mood for even more tennis reading, check out our personal favorite and one of the best sports memoirs of all time: Andre Agassi’s Open.
🎥 What to watch:

Serena — and basically all women’s tennis players — have Billie Jean King, the biggest voice in tennis equality, to thank for breaking gender barriers in the sport. Watch Battle of the Sexes for ultimate empowerment feels.

  • And for something a little lighter/funnier/weirder, check out 7 Days in Hell, starring Serena, Andy Samberg and Kit Harington in white tennis shorts and mullets. Don’t ask questions.

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