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GARY WASHBURN

Serena Williams broke the tennis mold, even if her all-time greatness isn’t always recognized

Serena Williams, pictured here at the 2019 US Open, will likely play her final tournament in Flushing Meadows this month.BEN SOLOMON/NYT

There has never been a more scrutinized and extraordinary athlete than Serena Williams.

She intimidated opponents and those tennis traditionalists with her strength and power, so much so that they used criticism and dismissal as weaponry. They refused to credit technical skill for her greatness, only physical prowess.

But there’s no denying that she’s the greatest tennis player of all time, male or female. She has dominated an era where women’s tennis became more popular than the men’s game in the United States, with the same three or four players winning every tournament and no American making an impact since Andy Roddick.

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Williams, who announced in Vogue that next month’s US Open may be her final tournament, helped popularize women’s tennis, adding intrigue and drama, eventually thrashing her competition, including apparent rival Maria Sharapova, whom Williams beat in 20 of their 22 head-to-head matchups.

It’s beyond astounding that Williams and her sister Venus emerged from their Compton, Calif. roots to become world-class players and two of the greatest of all time, and it’s also amazing they both played into their 40s in a sport where 30 is considered over the hill.

Serena Williams, left, and her sister Venus took the tennis world by storm when they first turned pro.FRANCOIS MORI/Associated Press

We expected greatness from Williams even after a pulmonary embolism and childbirth. We expected her to put away younger and hungrier opponents in her later years. But the generation that Williams inspired, including names like Naomi Osaka, eventually started beating her, and that was the first major sign of decline.

Williams was Superwoman for two decades, a physically imposing, ball-punishing player who put away staunch competition with relative ease. But as she began to delve into family life, modeling, and other endeavors, she said the game has become less of a priority.

We have anticipated every Grand Slam since she won her 23rd at the 2017 Australian Open, a tournament she won while eight weeks pregnant, to see if Williams could catch Margaret Court for the record of 24 major wins. This US Open will be her final chance.

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And it will be an emotional swan song for a 25-year career. The visuals of Venus and Serena with beads swinging from their braided hair, swatting balls at the instruction of their vocal and protective father Richard remain vivid. But those images also made some uncomfortable because their road to tennis success was not traditional.

Serena Williams is as untraditional as it comes. She penetrated a tennis hierarchy that didn’t encourage people of color. From the days of Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, tennis has often had Black players who were world class, who were good enough to compete with those who perhaps had an easier road to success.

But not until Serena did a Black player revolutionize the game, or catapult to the top for more than a decade. No player from Williams’s generation is even close to her major title count.She’s also No. 2 overall in Grand Slam finals, semifinals, and quarterfinals reached.

Yet, appreciation and adulation has always eluded Williams, especially from those who preceded her. For years, it has been a strain for tennis great Chris Evert to give Williams any kudos. There is resentment there, as if there is animosity because of the perception that Serena lacks grace in a game where grace is encouraged.

She is Martina Navratilova, to the next level. She has personified power in a game that only wanted that style from its men. She turned herself into an imposing physical specimen, adding a different femininity to the game, an unapologetic fashionista on the court and an outspoken woman off of it.

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During the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Team USA tennis held a press conference. Madison Keys, whose father is Black, was asked about representing a country that was even considering electing Donald Trump as president, with the racial unrest and the progression of Black Lives Matter that was percolating during his campaign. Keys, who said she doesn’t identify as solely Black or white, “just Madison,” giggled uncomfortably at the question with no response.

Williams then took over, addressing the question and telling reporters: “I think it’s really important for me to pass the message of love and unity across all nations. It doesn’t matter what race. Obviously with me being an African American, I’m very sensitive over a lot of things. But I think it’s important that we should pass the message of love.”

Serena Williams waves to the Wimbledon crowd after a rare loss, this one in 2018.Tim Ireland

Addressing race is something Keys wanted nothing to do with and something most of Serena’s contemporaries never had to. Serena never had a choice.

Despite those obstacles, despite a different and more difficult road to success, she became an icon. She maximized her talents. How many athletes have stood out with their physical prowess, possessed game-changing potential, were seemingly gifted by God, but lacked the mental fortitude, desire, and savvy to be successful?

So we can’t attribute Serena’s success to good genes or gifts from above. That was the source of only a fraction of her success. She revolutionized and modernized a game that frankly was not prepared for her arrival and adjusted slowly to her presence.

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A few weeks short of 41, Serena will enter the US Open hoping for one final, remarkable run. At an age where her predecessors were either commentating or enjoying retirement, Serena will have a legitimate chance – with some good fortune and health – to finish on top.

Perhaps full appreciation will come. Because there is no Serena Williams on the horizon. Many of those who follow her will have solid careers, win some majors, and compete for 10-plus years.

But that pales in comparison to Serena Williams, not only the greatest of this generation, but of all time.


Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.