Tenacity beyond tennis: Why Serena Williams is the GOAT

(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

That Serena Williams is, statistically, is the greatest Grand Slam player of all times is not something that can be questioned.

The on-court numbers, we know: 23 Grand Slam in singles - the most in Open era - along with 14 doubles and 2 mixed doubles, Career Golden Slam in both singles and doubles, two 'Serena Slams'. Her off-court impact, particularly for female athletes and players of colour - cannot even be quantified.

But as the she walks into the sunset of her tennis career - days short of turning 41 years old, having started her pro career at 14 - it's worth remembering another aspect of her legacy, which can fly under the radar when there is just so much to celebrate about this once-in-a-generation athlete: How Serena rose from adversity, how she responded to despair.

Tenacity beyond tennis.

The successes are painted in glory for all to see, but it's the setbacks and solitude that moulded Serena Williams into the GOAT. She won more than most other players but her career had an unusual share of failures and controversies.

Unusual because they went beyond the realm of athletes' losses and lack of form -- she had to travel through an obstacle course of racism, sexism, crass comments from peers, life-threatening illnesses and life-saving surgeries, mental blocks (especially after the maternity break), the timing of maternity break itself, and the 'X on her back from 1999' as she described the pressure of winning her first Major as a teen.

It was burden beyond what most elite athletes have to carry, a burden unique to her.

At Wimbledon - where she has 7 singles and 7 doubles titles - the famous Rudyard Kipling line stands above the doorway: "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same." That is exactly what she did.

When she was booed by the largely-white crowd despite winning the 2001 Indian Wells after a player accused her father of manipulating Williams sisters matches. When she suffered a hematoma and a pulmonary embolism in 2011 and had to rebuild her career. When she missed a Calendar Slam with a shock loss to Roberta Vinci at 2015 US Open. When she played and won the 2017 Australian Open while two months pregnant. When she was penalized for alleged on-court coaching and broke down in the 2019 US Open final against Naomi Osaka. When she fell and injured herself in first round of Wimbledon 2021 and couldn't play for a year. Down to her final match at US Open, when the two sets she lost had a scoreline of 7-5 and 6-1; indicative of both the best and the worst of the final chapter of her career.

Then there were the unfair and often ridiculous off-field criticism and controversies. From fans to former players, she has been constantly attacked... for being Black, for being a woman, for her body, for being an entrepreneur. Pat Cash accusing her of having a "limited attention span" and that she won't return to the top again, back in 2007. John McEnroe saying that she would be "like No. 700 in the world" if she played on the men's circuit. Former Russian tennis chief Shamil Tarpischev referring to Serena and Venus Williams as the "Williams brothers." Ile Nastase making racist comments about her unborn child. The list goes on.

The flak from laypeople, though less prominent was no less acrimonious. There will always be people alluding to moments when she lost her temper, like the altercation with the line judge and chair umpire at US Open. Not her best moments on court yes, but things she has acknowledged. Comments about her built or weight and 'technical inputs' about how she can't play as well. Insinuations that not reaching Court's all-time mark of 24 Majors somehow diminished her CV. Even the less vitriolic 'she is the greatest female player of all time' and she should gracefully retire instead of struggling.

But Serena Williams has risen above it all; walking away in her own time, in her own way. Just like how she made her own path in the tennis world, making the journey easier for those that came after.

At the Tokyo Olympics, when Simone Biles opted out of events, she was praised for her bravery in putting her mental health first. She tweeted this afterwards:

This is something we often tend to gloss over when it comes to elite athletes. This is the prism we should see Serena's incredible 27-year-old career with; which went from ruthless brilliance as a teenager to the sustained excellence before her struggles after giving birth.

For a player who hates losing, to have a first-person view of time slowing you down would have been agony. This agony has often transcended the screen - her tears after the 2021 Australian Open semifinal loss to Osaka, her rage when her legs can't keep up with a dropshot. But her hunger and hardwork has always been visible and visceral.

This drive is an aspect of latter-day Serena that should not be forgotten.

It's this personality, as much as the trophies, which earned the deafening cheers from the crowd, the horde of celebrities in attendance as she bowed out on last time in New York - 23 years after winning her first Major at the same venue. The beads in her hair then - adorably replicated by her daughter dressed in mini-version of her diamond-encrusted farewell kit - have now become literal gems.

Naomi Osaka, herself a role model, had famously said early in her career that she was thinking 'What would Serena Do' when she was in a spot of bother on court. The answer has been in the way the 40-year-old repeatedly picked herself up and competed, even if she didn't win, till the last point.

Serena Williams rose above it all, to become the Greatest of All Time.