Serena Williams’ peers got her farewell party started at the United States (US) Open media day on Friday, hailing the tennis icon ahead of what is expected to be her final Grand Slam.
The 40-year-old American announced she would retire after the year’s final major having collected 23 Grand Slam titles and transformed the sport, with a generation of women and girls having flocked to tennis because of her.
“For me it’s still pretty surreal when I see her,” Poland’s world number one and twice French Open winner Iga Swiatek told reporters. “I still feel like I’m just a kid who’s watching. I watched her my whole life.”
Williams begins her USMOpen bid on Monday against Montenegro’s Danka Kovinic facing a tricky path, with second seed Anett Kontaveit possibly awaiting the winner.
“She showed me how to be strong, how to be independent, how to fight for what you believe in, fight for your dreams,” said last year’s Canadian finalist Leylah Fernandez, who faces France’s Oceane Dodin in the first round. “She’s set out a good path for all of the WTA players, even the ATP players.”
While Williams’ on-court accomplishments have given her a place in the history books, her off-court candour about her life has earned the American a place in the hearts of even her fiercest opponents.
Williams won the 2017 Australian Open before confirming she was pregnant with daughter Olympia. She later wrote in a CNN column that she nearly died giving birth, suffering complications that left her bedridden for weeks and which led to multiple surgeries.
“She’s a peak physical athlete, and she has all of these resources and all these things and something really scary health wise also happened to her,” 2017 US Open finalist Madison Keys told Reuters at the WTA’s Her Health Advantage Media Event.
“(She’s) able to basically make people listen and say, ‘Look, this is an issue and I’m not going to let you ignore that it’s an issue and we need to talk about it’.”
She has reached four Grand Slam finals since returning from maternity leave but has not won another major. Nonetheless Williams has emerged as figure others hope to emulate.
“She’s the great example. Especially also with how she copes with having business (interests) and playing at the same time or being a mother and playing at the same time,” said Swiatek.
“It’s great that we have somebody like that in our sport who cleared the path and show us that you can do anything.”