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Serena Williams is a tennis great, and so much greater than that

<strong>February 18, 2021:</strong> Serena Williams serves against Naomi Osaka during their women's singles semi-final match on day eleven of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne, Australia.
William West/AFP/Getty Images
February 18, 2021: Serena Williams serves against Naomi Osaka during their women's singles semi-final match on day eleven of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne, Australia.

Most people are not fortunate enough to realize the impact their life has made on others because, well, the majority of the accolades often come at memorials. But when you are Serena Williams, playing what is expected to be the final major tournament of a career emblazoned with the acronym G.O.A.T, you must recognize how your presence and accomplishments on and off the tennis court have inspired the hopes and dreams of African Americans, in particular female athletes, how you have introduced a sport that appeared off limits to a new, diverse audience, and how you have rewritten society's definition of beauty – all this by doing things your way.

<strong>September 7, 2004:</strong> Serena Williams loses to Jennifer Capriati in the quarter finals of the women's singles during the 2004 US Open in Flushing, New York.
/ Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
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Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
September 7, 2004: Serena Williams loses to Jennifer Capriati in the quarter finals of the women's singles during the 2004 US Open in Flushing, New York.

Not even father Richard Williams, shunned, disrespected and laughed at when he shuttled his two young daughters, Venus and Serena, from their home in Compton, Calif., where they learned to play on public courts, to tennis clinics and tournaments throughout Southern California, could have predicted the influence his baby girl would have in a country club sport – and beyond. He knew they would both be No. 1. But that wasn't enough for Serena.

In her 2009 memoir, On The Line, Serena wrote about how a national newspaper article on Venus, published after the two started playing tournaments, spurred her because the article "suggested that I'd never be anything more than a footnote to Venus's career...I promised myself I'd never forget that article, that one day I'd prove the reporter wrong."

<strong>1992:</strong> Serena Williams and her sister Venus Williams ride with their father Richard Williams at a tennis camp in Florida.
/ Kevin Levine/Allsport/Getty Images
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Kevin Levine/Allsport/Getty Images
1992: Serena Williams and her sister Venus Williams ride with their father Richard Williams at a tennis camp in Florida.
<strong>August 25, 2022:</strong> After a glittering 27-year professional career in which she became one of the greatest tennis players of all time, Serena Williams practices ahead of what is believed to be her last major tournament, the 2022 US Open, in Flushing, New York.
/ Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
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Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
August 25, 2022: After a glittering 27-year professional career in which she became one of the greatest tennis players of all time, Serena Williams practices ahead of what is believed to be her last major tournament, the 2022 US Open, in Flushing, New York.
<strong>September 19, 1999:</strong> Lindsay Davenport gives a thumbs up as teammates Venus Williams, Monica Seles and Serena Williams pose after receiving the Fed Cup trophy for defeating Russia during the Federation Cup at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.
/ John G. Mabanglo/AFP/Getty Images
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John G. Mabanglo/AFP/Getty Images
September 19, 1999: Lindsay Davenport gives a thumbs up as teammates Venus Williams, Monica Seles and Serena Williams pose after receiving the Fed Cup trophy for defeating Russia during the Federation Cup at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

Venus, 15 months older, certainly paved the way for Serena. Then Serena, with that article fueling the fire that burned inside her, blazed her own path to become the most dominant female athlete of all time with a jaw-dropping 23 Grand Slam singles championships, a record in the Open era, that fittingly began at the U.S. Open in 1999.

<strong>May 29, 2018:</strong> Serena Williams plays a forehand return to Kristýna Plíšková during their women's singles first round match on day three of the 2018 French Open tennis tournament in Paris, France.
/ Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images
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Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images
May 29, 2018: Serena Williams plays a forehand return to Kristýna Plíšková during their women's singles first round match on day three of the 2018 French Open tennis tournament in Paris, France.
<strong>May 6, 2019:</strong> Tennis player Serena Williams arrives for the 2019 Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, New York.
/ Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images
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Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images
May 6, 2019: Tennis player Serena Williams arrives for the 2019 Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, New York.

Just two years prior, in August 1997, Richard sat with this journalist in the family's West Palm Beach, Fla., home and wondered aloud if he was doing the right thing by delaying Serena's U.S. Open debut. Serena was itching to play. But dad wanted to bring his tennis prodigies along slowly so the sisters could enjoy being youths and focus on their studies. Serena had turned pro when she was 14 but only played one tournament in 1995, none in 1996 then five in 1997. The following year, it was game on as she made her first appearance in each of the four Grand Slam tournaments.

<strong>January 12, 2020:</strong> Alexis Olympia, daughter of Serena Williams, and husband Alexis Ohanian congratulate Serena Williams after she won her final match against Jessica Pegula at ASB Tennis Centre in Auckland, New Zealand.
/ Hannah Peters/Getty Images
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Hannah Peters/Getty Images
January 12, 2020: Alexis Olympia, daughter of Serena Williams, and husband Alexis Ohanian congratulate Serena Williams after she won her final match against Jessica Pegula at ASB Tennis Centre in Auckland, New Zealand.

Soon, there was no surface Serena couldn't master, from grass at the prestigious All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, where she won seven prestigious Wimbledon titles, to the hardcourts at Melbourne Park, where she also claimed seven Australian Open titles, and the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, where she earned six U.S. Open trophies, to the hallowed clay courts at Stade Roland Garros, where three French Open championships came her way. Few people knew Serena was pregnant with her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. when she beat Venus in the 2017 Australian Open finals for her 23rd Grand Slam singles trophy. In all, seven of Serena's Grand Slam triumphs have come against Venus, the sister who taught her so much.

<strong>September 11, 2008:</strong> Venus Williams, Serena Williams and Anna Wintour attend the Zac Posen Spring 2009 Fashion Show at the tents in New York, New York.
/ Rush Zimmerman/Patrick McMullan/Getty Images
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Rush Zimmerman/Patrick McMullan/Getty Images
September 11, 2008: Venus Williams, Serena Williams and Anna Wintour attend the Zac Posen Spring 2009 Fashion Show at the tents in New York, New York.

Serena always had the luxury of having her protective big sister share tips on how to play opponents whom Venus may have already faced. With Venus, Serena also had a confidant who knew exactly what she was going through when it came to matters of race in the sport. Althea Gibson, who in 1956 became the first African American to win a Grand Slam title, and Arthur Ashe, who won three Grand Slam titles and remains the only African American male tennis player to win the U.S. Open and Wimbledon singles titles, didn't have this advantage.

At 42, Venus has not mentioned retiring. Serena also hasn't used the R word, preferring evolving. Yet hasn't she already changed so much? The Williams sisters brought to tennis something never before seen in their sport. They flaunted their cultural heritage with braids and beads in their early years on the tour. They played with an aggressiveness and phenomenal power that was decried but has become more commonplace in the women's game. Serena, with her bulging biceps, took twice the criticism with detractors body shaming her. The younger, more muscular sister accepted being blessed with thick thighs and a round buttocks that women pay good money to achieve through surgery. She proved that her thighs and butt didn't slow her down when it came to chasing opponents' shots on the court and returning blistering winners. Instead of hiding her curves, she flaunted them in her outfits on the court and posed nude for the cover of Vanity Fair while pregnant.

<strong>July 9, 2016:</strong> Serena Williams celebrates winning the first set against Angelique Kerber during the women's singles final on the thirteenth day of the 2016 Wimbledon Championships in London, United Kingdom.
/ Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images
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Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images
July 9, 2016: Serena Williams celebrates winning the first set against Angelique Kerber during the women's singles final on the thirteenth day of the 2016 Wimbledon Championships in London, United Kingdom.
<strong>August 29, 2022:</strong> Serena Williams celebrates against Danka Kovinić during the women's singles first round on day one of the 2022 US Open in Flushing, New York.
/ Sarah Stier/Getty Images
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Sarah Stier/Getty Images
August 29, 2022: Serena Williams celebrates against Danka Kovinić during the women's singles first round on day one of the 2022 US Open in Flushing, New York.

Not afraid to show emotion and possessing passion and confidence while winning on her terms in a white man's sports, Serena inspired little girls and boys of color to pick up racquets. Were it not for the Williams sisters, it's highly unlikely the 2020 U.S. Open would have boasted 16 either Black or multiracial players, including 12 on the women's side.

<strong>September 8, 2018:</strong> Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka hug after Osaka won the women's final match during the 2018 US Open in Flushing, New York.
/ Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
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Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
September 8, 2018: Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka hug after Osaka won the women's final match during the 2018 US Open in Flushing, New York.

African American players Zina Garrison, the 1990 Wimbledon singles runner-up, and Lori McNeil, a singles semifinalist at the U.S. Open in 1987 and Wimbledon in 1994, were role models for Serena, who in turn inspired Grand Slam champions Naomi Osaka and Sloane Stephens, along with Coco Gauff and Frances Tiafoe, currently ranked second, respectively, among U.S. women and men. Even race car driver Lewis Hamilton, the record holder with 103 Formula One wins and a record-tying seven world championships, has stated how much the Williams sisters inspired him in his sport where he is the only Black driver.

<strong>June 2, 2021:</strong> Serena Williams looks on as she plays against Mihaela Buzărnescu during their women's singles second round tennis match on day 4 of the 2021 French Open tennis tournament in Paris, France.
/ Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images
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Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images
June 2, 2021: Serena Williams looks on as she plays against Mihaela Buzărnescu during their women's singles second round tennis match on day 4 of the 2021 French Open tennis tournament in Paris, France.

For the past 27 years, Serena has given her all to the game. Now it's time to say goodbye, to let her continue to blossom into the mother, wife and businesswoman roles she has taken on while excelling on the court. We say, thank you, Serena.

Kelly E. Carter is the New York Times bestselling author of Come to Win: Business Leaders, Artists, Doctors, and Other Visionaries on How Sports Can Help You Top Your Profession.

Grace Widyatmadja and Şeyma Bayram photo edited this story.

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