The case for Serena Williams

February 21, 2021
Why Serena Williams is the GOAT
Sports NewsTennis
 The case for Serena Williams
Source: Chris Symes/ Photosport via AP


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.

What GOATs are made of

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

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

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

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

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

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’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.

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