The other day I was watching live coverage of the US Open. The cameras showed empty practice courts, as gusts of wind swept across them on a crisp September morning in Queens, New York. A time when the video crews can typically get a live, behind-the-scenes glimpse at the competitors, none were to be found due to the difficult weather conditions — that is none but arguably tennis’ greatest player of all-time, Serena Williams, and her hitting partner.
An unrelenting professional, she skillfully skipped around the practice court, splitting the oncoming gusts with would-be aces and sprinkling in strategic crosscourt volleys, honing her craft.
Undeterred, she took on the wind when most of her competition wouldn’t. That — the work she puts in when nobody is keeping score — is what makes Serena the best.
Over the course of her career, she has consistently embraced the struggle. Back in the summer of 2015, Serena had secured a Serena Slam (four consecutive Grand Slam titles), and was on the verge of her first true Grand Slam (all four Grand Slam titles in one year). The win would’ve tied her with Graf for the most Open-era titles, and she walked onto the court at the US Open semi-final where an apparently inevitable victory awaited her. Then, in a stunning upset, she lost to Roberta Vinci.
Her struggles continued in early 2016 at the Australian Open as she lost to Angelique Kerber, and then early this summer at the French Open where she was beat by Garbiñe. All three of them were first time title winners.
Questions about her ability to return to dominance began to surface. Was Serena’s brilliance fading before our collective eyes?
Nope. Serena responded by winning her 7th Wimbledon title and historic 22nd (Open-era) Grand Slam title over Angelique Kerber, tying her with the legendary Steffi Graf. With her dominance affirmed, Serena turned her eyes toward Rio, only to be met with another struggle.
In a year of Olympic dominance that saw US athletes bring home 121 medals, Serena fell short of achieving Olympic glory. In the first round of doubles, Lucie Šafářová and Barbora Strýcová of the Czech Republic defeated her and (older sister) Venus, and in singles she was eliminated by Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina.
She may have returned home from Brazil empty-handed, but that was quickly forgotten on Monday, September 4th when she won 6-2, 6-3 against Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan, bringing her career total Grand Slam victory count to 308. She now owns the all-time record for most matches won in tennis majors, moving Roger Federer to second on the list.
Then, hoping to claim an Open-era record 23rd major singles title, Serena was eliminated by Karolina Pliskova in semifinals on Thursday, September 8th. This caused her to lose the No. 1 ranking to Angelique Kerber, ending Serena’s record-tying 186 weeks atop the list.
Even still, when we talk about Serena, we’re undeniably talking about a legend. After all, you can’t really talk about tennis without bringing her up. That, of course, doesn’t mean that she holds a spotless record. Everyone faces adversity, and everyone tastes defeat at one point or another. Her status as a legend doesn’t mean that she’s immune to any of that. It means that she put the work in, day in and day out, through the good, of course, but especially through the bad.
“Luck has nothing to do with it” — she once said — “because I have spent many, many hours, countless hours on the court, working for my one moment in time, not knowing when it would come.”
In a career full of highlights, it’s hard to pick a favorite from Serena’s reel. Memorable as it was to watch her collapse victorious upon winning that 7th Wimbledon against Kerber, or clinch her fist after that record-breaking 308th win against Shvedova, the image that — in my mind — epitomizes Serena is that lonely, windy-morning practice session at the 2016 US Open. That is the scene that speaks the loudest to me, because it’s what you do in the secret that determines how you perform in public.
After all, that’s where legacies are made — that’s the foundation upon which legends are built.