Serena Williams hung up her racket last year. As is her way, she did not write off the chance of picking it up again, but it is surely unlikely. Her adios to Madrid came a while before her final goodbye to the game because this year will mark the eighth in which we haven’t seen her in the Caja Mágica. During those eight years, women’s tennis has changed; competitiveness has ousted hierarchy, at least for the time being. However, she continues to be the queen of that hierarchy and she demonstrated it every time she set foot in the Spanish capital.
The women’s tour came to the Mutua Madrid Open in 2009, to usher in the Caja Mágica era and give the tournament the extra dimension it now enjoys. Serena came to Madrid as a fully-fledged star. She had now outgrown Venus’ shadow and it started to look like Serena may eventually be mentioned in the same breath as Graf, Billie Jean King, Margaret Court, Chris Evert, or even Martina Navratilova, who, not long before, had looked untouchable. Her first outing in Madrid was memorable for the wrong reasons. She withdrew injured after losing the first set to Francesca Schiavone and left the court in tears.
It is impossible to know what would have become of Serena Williams had she never acquainted herself with success, what Serena in retirement at 40 years and 11months of age would have meant if she had arrived there anonymously –she admitted once during the Mutua that she sometimes goes out in disguise ‘just to feel like everyone else for a while’. What actually happened is that she reached that age in possession of an astonishing trophy haul, only lacking the Grand Slam and that twenty-fourth major she so coveted; exceptional achievements from an exceptional athlete. As her career advanced and her list of titles grew, Serena matured personally, which – as we also know – is not always the case.
Serena returned the following year, declaring that she expected to retire at “around 30” and that she thought more about majors than being world No. 1. However, Madrid continued to be a stumbling block for her because Maria Petrova ensured she would endure an early exit. Two years later, though, she demonstrated her taste for the Madrid tournament by winning the trophy two years on the trot.
An event for the greats
In 2012, the year of the blue clay, Serena was having an inconsistent season, but in the later rounds here she knocked out Wozniacki, Sharapova, the event’s surprise package Hradecka, and world No. 1 Azarenka in the final, 6-1, 6-3. The American joked about the commotion surrounding the new surface that year; “we women haven’t complained, we’re tougher”. Her streak lasted into the following year, when she saw off an Anabel Medina who gave her quite the scare (6-3, 0-6, 7-5) before breezing past Sharapova in the final (6-1, 6-4). A hamstring injury meant she had to withdraw in 2014, but not before sending Carla Suárez packing in the quarters.
In 2015, Serena was already four years older than the age she had set herself for retirement several seasons earlier. That year, in the semi-finals, Petra Kvitova, one of the queens of Madrid, brought an end (6-2, 6-3) to Serena Williams’ love affair with the Mutua Madrid Open. Now in that phase of her career in which the greats are aware that they are playing for and against history, Serena Williams’ goal became the 24th Grand Slam, which she would eventually never claim.
Chris Evert defined it as follows: Serena Williams has meant as much off the court as her achievements have on it. Her 23 Grand Slams and the rest of the titles have added value, she has converted them into tools to leave a great legacy that is surely only just beginning.
Serena, for example, was a champion, a mother, and then a champion again, demonstrating the obsolescence of the mentality that has forced women to choose between maternity and something else (she won the Australian Open when she was two-months pregnant, and returned to the game after life-threatening childbirth). Serena was, and is, a socialite, as we say nowadays. But she has also given substance to her role as a UNICEF ambassador, which for many is merely a badge to wear. Her company, Serena Ventures, supports initiatives such as the construction of schools in Africa and social resources in Compton, the ghetto neighbourhood of Los Angeles where her story began. That story is now the subject of a film; ‘King Richard’, which won five Oscars in 2022. It is an official account, but also one that is generally very true to life.
This is no mean feat, because ‘being herself’ means being a person who, in the eyes of many, should never have been where she was. The young Bjorn Borg was told tennis was ‘not for everyone’ (he was not a member of the upper class). Manolo Santana was able to triumph because he earned the affection of those who were in charge of the courts and balls. Perhaps Serena was not told to her face – except in Indian Wells, when she and her sister had to endure ugly racist insults – but her own journey was always a reminder that neither of the Williams sisters were supposed to be there, among the elite of tennis. Richard Williams deserves much of the credit for taking them there.
Serena Williams was not exactly a tennis player and activist in the way that Martina Navratilova had to be, but of course, her name transcends tennis, and that is another of her merits. She made an impression wherever she went and the Caja Mágica was no exception; we will always miss her.